The place was Denver. The occasion was the February business meeting of the policy-making General Board of the National Council of Churches. On opening day a block away from the meeting site, the barbershop gossip went something like this:

BARBER: “New in town?”

REPORTER: “Yes [edited from ‘yeah’], here to report the National Council meeting at the Brown Palace Hotel.”

BARBER: “I read where some Russians are coming to the meeting.”

REPORTER: “That’s right. Sixteen Soviet church leaders are returning a visit of American churchmen sponsored last year by the National Council.”

MANICURIST (working on someone else): “I didn’t know they had churches in Russia.”

REPORTER: “They do, but their activities are pretty limited.”

BARBER: “I see that some fella from New Jersey is coming out here to protest the visit.”

REPORTER: “Oh? First I’ve heard of it.”

So much for the tonsorial topography of the NCC meeting. Yet, in this humble session of mutual hairline education were sketched the rudiments of a situation which would involve in some way all three of the major U. S. church councils and/or associations and would reveal something of the political and emotional posture of each.

Despite Republican Governor John Love’s plea for hospitality toward the Soviet churchmen, their arrival at the Denver airport provoked a picket-line response which included signs like “Wolves in Sheeps’ Clothing.”

Soon after, black beards glistening under flashbulbs, the clerics sat patiently in the Silver Plume room of the Brown Palace, awaiting their initial press conference. Beginning a three-week tour of the U. S. by observing NCC sessions, they represented the Russian Orthodox Church, Georgian Orthodox Church, Armenian Church, Evangelical Lutheran Churches from Estonia and Latvia, and the Union of Evangelical-Christian Baptists.

Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., introduced them as professing Christians who enjoy a limited amount of freedom under the Soviet constitution. He pointed out that “all freedom is limited.”

Youthful Archbishop Nikodim of Jaroslavl and Rostov (35), pink cheeks glowing above full beard, read a prepared statement in Russian which included the following optimism:

“We have come to you from a socialist state where our people, seized by labour enthusiasm, are creating a new dynamic society.… While blessing its flock for labour exploits, the Russian Orthodox Church also blesses them for peacemaking efforts and fully supports the aspirations of all our people for peace and friendship with all peoples of the earth and for realization in the practice of international relations on the principles of peaceful competition and cooperation of states with different social and political systems.…

Article continues below

“The state does not interfere in the internal affairs of our churches. Soviet legislation provides for strict responsibility against wounding the religious rights of believers.…

“We churchmen get indignant over the attempts of the champions of the cold war to distort the picture of the real position of religion in our country, and to try, for purposes of propaganda so alien to the interests of the Church, to present the problems of the existence of Church in a secularized society—which axe common for the whole of Christendom today—as an indication of the alleged lack of freedom of religion under the conditions of socialism.”

During the rather limited question period, Nikodim said that the question of anti-Semitism does not exist in the Soviet Union. Asked concerning Christian growth in Russia, he described the Russian Orthodox situation as “stabilized.” At a tea-break later on, Nikodim told CHRISTIANITY TODAY through an interpreter that the 32 Siberians who recently sought refuge in the American embassy in Moscow were “fanatics.”

Accompanying the Soviet delegation was Dr. Paul B. Anderson, NCC consultant on relations with Orthodox churches, who has written: “Realizing that churches pray and Christians long for peace, the [Communist] Party welcomes the participation of Soviet churchmen in furthering its peace program. It is at this point that Soviet churchmen enter the field of propaganda and find themselves charged with being Soviet agents when they issue or sign statements which press the Soviet side on international issues, or when they attend and assume a prominent place in ‘peace’ rallies abroad.”

Nikodim’s statements to the press were really quite mild when seen in contrast to some which have appeared in Russian Orthodox publications. The following were cited by Frederick Brown Harris, chaplain of the U. S. Senate, just before the Russian Orthodox Church was admitted to the World Council of Churches:

On the Korean War: “The United States interfered in the internal affairs of the Korean people.… The Russian Orthodox Church condemned this intervention and the inhuman annihilation of the peaceful population of Korea by the American air forces who disseminated Colorado beetles and resorted to the use of bacteriological weapons.”

Article continues below

A sampling of Russian Orthodox eschatology: “Capitalistic America, the trans-Atlantic octopus, is trying to fasten its greedy tentacles around the whole globe. The resurrected Babylon is trying to seduce the people of the world while pushing them toward war. The freedom of the Western democrats is but liberty to rob, coerce, and slaughter. They are merchants in human blood sitting on a bag of gold, ready to exterminate all people who have the nerve to protest.”

The Denver Association of Evangelicals, representing some 300 churches affiliated with the National Association of Evangelicals, avoided either applauding or actively protesting the Russians’ visit. While calling for “the courtesy which is characteristic of Christian hospitality,” the association warned: “No one should be naive enough to believe that the Soviet government—which is even now engaged in an intensive persecution of true believers in Russia—would permit these leaders of the officially recognized churches to travel outside the Iron Curtain if it were not sure of their social and political views.”

The Denver Post thought the association had a point here. But the newspaper termed “irresponsible” charges of “an out-of-town evangelist who is following [the Russians] around the country [calling] them all ‘spies and agents reporting directly to the secret police.’ ” Reference was to Dr. Carl McIntire, founder of the American Council of Christian Churches, which in conjunction with local pastors organized a Denver rally protesting the Russians’ visit. McIntire told an audience numbering about 1,500 that the Russians’ dark robes reminded him of a black company of the Ku Klux Klan. They were part of the Soviet intelligence system, he charged. “The N.A.E. brethren are afraid to fight,” though they profit by “our fight for freedom.” McIntire called for an investigation of the State Department, citing its exchange program whereby “secret police” and “spies” enter the United States “robed as churchmen to deceive our people.” He also pointed to State policy which turned back the Siberian refugees. Petitions were circulated; the hope is for thousands of signatures to be collected throughout the nation.

Meanwhile, back at the Brown Palace … the NCC General Board received a wide-ranging study calling for major revisions in the governing and operating structure of the council that may be used as a guide for proposed changes in the council’s constitution. Centralization of authority over the various NCC agencies is projected by the study. Dr. Henry P. Van Dusen, president of New York’s Union Theological Seminary, strenuously objected to the study’s “intense preoccupation with authority,” which “weaves its way through almost every page.” He declared the basic question to be: “Are we going to put ourselves in a unified, hierarchical straitjacket?” He urged abandonment of the study and the undertaking of a new one. But he found little if any backing as thirteen speakers rose to defend the report. Its supporters claim the changes will enable the constituent denominations to be in effective control of their council.

Article continues below

Final action on constitutional changes is expected at the NCC triennial General Assembly, meeting in Philadelphia next December.

The General Board also:

Reviewed the churches’ role in the struggle for racial justice and committed the NCC to participate in the continuation of interreligious activities in the field of race relations for a period extending through June 1, 1964, with the understanding that this support may be extended after future review and evaluation;

Resolved that the principle of equal pay for equal work without discrimination on the basis of sex should be supported as a matter of basic economic justice; Urged that Congress and the Administration consider carefully the concern of the churches over the Administration’s proposal to “place a floor” under the legally allowable itemized deductions for individual income taxpayers. A statement approved by the board asked whether the proposal would not in the long run have the effect of “discouraging what hereto-fore has been encouraged by the tax laws of the Federal Government; namely, support of the broad variety of voluntary associations of our citizens which assume personal and private responsibility for programs and organizations freely established for social ends in which they believe.” The statement also questioned whether the proposed new tax law may not “be a crucial step in that too prevalent modern tendency to remove social responsibility from individuals in the form of a greater and greater reliance upon officially planned and federally supported social programs.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.