A long-planned student-to-student visit by Russian Orthodox seminarians to theological schools in six American cities was canceled on the eve of their departure from Moscow late last month, but church officials in both countries deny that any political pressures were involved.
The Rev. Bruce Rigdon, a specialist in Russian church life for the National Council of Churches, which was coordinating the unprecedented visit, said he is convinced that the arrangements fell through "for purely logistical reasons."
Rigdon, who flew to Moscow late last month to try to salvage the venture, said things began to fall apart when the Russian church's external affairs department "had to move earlier than they expected" last summer from downtown Moscow to an ancient monestary that was being refurbished by the government for church headquarters.
The new quarters were in disarray, Rigdon said. "Their staff of 150 or so had only two phones."
"They told us right up to the last minute that they hoped to make good" on the promise to select a dozen seminarians and three faculty members for the month-long trip. But, Rigdon said, "we got no indication they had ever gotten their delegation together."
He said he could see "no indication" of government pressure to torpedo the project. "We did raise the question. We did discuss it," Rigdon said, adding that he does not believe that the government intervened.
Plans are going forward to make the visit some time next year. "They've reaffirmed their commitment to go ahead with it," Rigdon said.
Douglas Lewis, president of Wesley Seminary here, who was helping coordinate the visit, said, "I can't tell you how disappointed we are."
Lewis sent a message to officials of 25 U.S. seminaries involved in the two-year planning for the visit quoting Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Fileret of Minsk as saying, "Please tell my American brothers and sisters we have failed them and we beg their understanding and forgiveness."
The NCC conducts a continuing program of exchange visits and efforts at joint religious ventures with churches in the Soviet Soviet Union.