Plans are underway to gather all South African churches under a single roof for a meeting in November that one church leader says could have "enormous impact" on the dismantling of apartheid.

The convocation is expected to attract leaders of South African churches that have denounced the country's system of enforced racial segregation and representatives of churches that have taken a less forceful stand -- or no stand -- against apartheid.

Frank Chikane, general secretary of the South African Council of Churches, said the gathering would represent the first time all of the churches in South Africa have met as a group and could potentially allow the churches to speak with one voice on the issue of apartheid.

"Recognizing the fact that South Africa is about 78 percent Christian, this would have an enormous impact on the development of events toward a just, non-racial, democratic society in the country," said Chikane, one of the nation's leading anti-apartheid activists and a minister in the Apostolic Faith Mission Church.

While there is a long history of church involvement in South Africa in the anti-apartheid movement, several churches have historically adopted a position of non-involvement, arguing that the role of the church does not include meddling in politics. That is a position also taken by Chikane's church.

The Dutch Reformed Church, the church of the country's white minority establishment, has been viewed as actively supporting racial segregation since apartheid became the law of the land in 1948. Although the Dutch Reformed Church formally labeled some forms of apartheid a sin in 1986, the denomination has been criticized for not condemning all aspects of apartheid and for failing to do more to abolish it.

But other churches, primarily those affiliated with the South African Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, have been actively involved in opposing apartheid -- by approving numerous formal anti-apartheid declarations and by taking leading roles in rallies and demonstrations.

Consensus on the November meeting was reached only after long communications among churches and government representatives, culminating in a meeting this month that in itself was deemed historic because it brought together council of churches members and the Dutch Reformed Church for the first time in three decades.

A convocation of all South African churches initially was suggested at the end of 1989 by the country's president, Frederik W. de Klerk, who chided church leaders for fostering a spirit of "suspicion, tension and conflict" and for "refusing to talk openly and directly with each other."

Council-affiliated churches balked at a meeting to be convened by the state president, though they did not reject the concept of meeting with other churches and agreed to continue discussions with de Klerk.

On June 13 de Klerk withdrew his invitation to convene the meeting, according to Chikane, "on the basis of his {de Klerk's} unwillingness to interfere in any way with the autonomy of the churches."

Two days later a steering committee of church leaders met with Louw Alberts, the senior government official charged with arranging the convocation, and agreed to hold a meeting in November without government sponsorship.

Alberts repeatedly had asserted that a church conference would go forward with or without participation by the South African Council of Churches and its member denominations. But without those denominations -- which include mainline Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Congregational and other bodies -- the significance of the conference would have been diluted.

Chikane and Alberts -- acting in a "personal capacity" and not as de Klerk's representatives -- were appointed to convene a planning committee for the conference that also includes, among others, the Rev. Allan Boesak, president of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Rev. Johan Heyns, moderator of the Dutch Reformed Church.