The head of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit, and Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church have met for talks at the patriarchal residence in the Kremlin.

WCC general secretary Tveit said he stressed the importance of the Russian Orthodox Church in the ecumenical movement and as a witness to Christian faith in the world, and that he and Patriarch Kirill spoke frankly about tensions in the ecumenical movement over such issues as human sexuality.

The June 28 meeting was held after a service in the Kremlin’s Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow.

In a sermon, Kirill spoke, as he has done repeatedly since his enthronement in 2009, of the importance of mission to youth and of establishing a catechism ministry in all parishes.

“This is again an example of how the Russian Orthodox Church with its growth in a new time is also an inspiration for other churches,” Tveit told ENInews in a telephone interview. “I commented to Patriarch Kirill that his leadership is also inspiring for other churches.”

Tveit noted that he stressed that the Russian Orthodox Church is an important part of this fellowship of the World Council of Churches. 

“In former times they might have needed the World Council of Churches,” said Tveit, referring to the Soviet Union’s communist era when the WCC provided a link to the outside world. “But now the World Council of Churches needs them.” said Tveit on June 28, the second day of his first official visit to the WCC’s largest member church.

The previous day, Tveit was taken to Butovo, a former Stalinist killing field on the edge of Moscow that is now a shrine to the 20th century “new martyrs” of the Russian Orthodox Church who in the past decade have been canonized as saints.

“I see this also in the wider sense of how the Russian Orthodox Church is witnessing to our common faith and our mission, both in Russia and in the world, to remind us important it is to be faithful witnesses,” Tveit told ENInews.  “We are reminded again that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

Ecumenism has faced criticism in recent years in the Russian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill, who has been active in the World Council of Churches for four decades, spoke openly of this at his meeting with Tveit.

“He addressed in a very open and direct way what he described as a crisis for the ecumenical movement,” said Tveit.  “He was following up signals he had been giving for some time.”

Tveit said that Kirill had expressed concern that some Protestant churches are changing their practice and giving greater space to homosexuality and that the distance between churches is growing. “He challenged me and the World Council of Churches: how do we address this, what kind of strategy do I have, or we have, facing this reality?”

In an interview with the Blagovest-info religion news agency, the day before Kirill’s meeting with Tveit, Hieromonk Filipp Ryabykh, the Moscow Patriarchate’s secretary for inter-Christian relations, spoke of the standoff over ecumenism.

Ryabykh said, “The Russian Orthodox Church has found itself facing the choice of attempting to influence this voice, so that the world hears not only Protestants, but also that Christian tradition that, as we believe, corresponds to apostolic faith, or remaining in isolation and being unable to bring to the world community its position in this complicated ungodly time.”