In his letter to Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, Patriarch Bartholomew spends a full paragraph on the “Meletian Schism” of Egypt (not to be confused with the unrelated Meletian Schism of Antioch in the same period). According to Patriarch Bartholomew, this Meletian Schism is an important precedent for the reception of schismatic bishops and clergy without re-ordination. The problem is that the Patriarch’s characterization of the Meletian Schism and its outcome is utterly and completely inaccurate, to the point of being blatantly dishonest. Here is the full paragraph written by the Patriarch:
While we do not wish to convey all of the cases delineated in the treatise, suffice it for us to note how the Holy and God-bearing Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea resolved the Melitian schism with the articulation of Canon 8 that reflects the Novatians. The said Melitios, Bishop of Lycopolis in Egypt, was accused of committing a whole series of unlawful acts, including denying the faith and sacrificing to idols. He was defrocked around the year 302 AD. Rejecting the defrocking, he formed an opposition and created the so-called Melitian schism. When reconciliation was achieved, according to the account of Athanasios the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria, the saint’s predecessor, Alexander of Alexandria, submitted a register or list of those ordained during the period of this schism – which included bishops, priests, and deacons – all of whom were restored to their proper rank without re-ordination. This schism troubled the Church up until the seventh century, while those reconciled were admitted into communion with the Church without re-baptism or even through Holy Chrism, as Theodore the Studite informs us all in his Great Epistle to Nafkratios.
So much of this is false — the schismatic clergy in question were not “restored to their proper rank without re-ordination”; in fact, the First Ecumenical Council explicitly required them to be re-ordained. He was not restored unilaterally by Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria, but by the entire First Ecumenical Council. The references to Canon 8 of Nicaea and the Great Epistle of Theodore the Studite to Nafkratios are red herrings, not relevant to the question of reception of schismatic clergy without re-ordination. In this article, we will examine each of these crucial points.
Meletios of Lycopolis
Meletios of Lycopolis was defrocked by a local council in Egypt for performing ordinations outside of his own canonical jurisdiction during the persecution of Christians in the first decade of the fourth century. Rather than seeking to appeal this decision, he set up his own church in opposition to the legitimate Church of Alexandria. After being defrocked, he continued to act as a bishop and ordained numerous other “bishops” and “priests.”
The First Ecumenical Council
The First Ecumenical Council addressed the Meletian Schism in a letter to the Church of Alexandria, instructing Alexandria (and its Patriarch, St Alexander) on precisely how to handle the Meletians. (To read the full text of the letter, click here.) The Council cautiously accepted Meletios’ (apparent) repentance, and restored him to his rank as bishop, but without the freedom to leave his own city or ordain anyone. And then, the key part for our purposes — “The Council also decided that those who had been appointed by him, after having been confirmed by a more legitimate ordination, should be admitted to communion on these conditions…”
Far from being “restored to their proper rank without re-ordination,” as Patriarch Bartholomew claims, the Meletian clergy were required to be “confirmed by a more legitimate ordination [μυστικότερᾳ χειροτονίᾳ, which perhaps could be rendered “more sacramental ordination”].” The case of the Meletians is directly opposed to Patriarch Bartholomew’s position, yet he has twisted it and claims that it favors him.
The conditions upon which the Meletian clergy were received were that they be treated essentially as second-class clergy, “inferior in every respect” to the canonical clergy who had remained faithful to the legitimate Church. If this approach were applied to the Ukrainian situation, the schismatic clergy, upon repentance and re-ordination, would be required to submit to the clergy of the legitimate Ukrainian Orthodox Church led by Metropolitan Onufry.
While Patriarch Bartholomew ignores the Letter of the First Ecumenical Council to the Church of Alexandria, he does claim that the Council “resolved the Melitian schism with the articulation of Canon 8 that reflects the Novatians.” But this is simply not true: the Council resolved the Meletian Schism on its own terms, in a separate letter, without any reference to Canon 8, which itself does not address the Meletians at all.
The Account of St Athanasios the Great
Patriarch Bartholomew continues: “When reconciliation was achieved, according to the account of Athanasios the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria, the saint’s predecessor, Alexander of Alexandria, submitted a register or list of those ordained during the period of this schism – which included bishops, priests, and deacons – all of whom were restored to their proper rank without re-ordination.”
This is a mischaracterization of St Athanasios’ words. (Click here to read St Athanasios’ letter. The relevant paragraphs are 71 and 72.) In these paragraphs, St Athanasios describes how he was falsely accused of murder. His accusers were Arians and Meletians, who were conspiring in an effort to destroy their mutual enemy, Athanasios. One of the chief accusers was a Meletian who claimed to be a priest, but had not been one of those re-ordained as part of the Nicene settlement described above, and St Athanasios objected to this man being allowed to give testimony against him.
St Athanasios explained: “When Meletius was admitted into communion (would that he had never been so admitted!) the blessed Alexander who knew his craftiness required of him a schedule of the Bishops whom he said he had in Egypt, and of the presbyters and deacons that were in Alexandria itself, and if he had any in the country district. This the Pope Alexander has done, lest Meletius, having received the freedom of the Church, should tender many, and thus continually, by a fraudulent procedure, foist upon us whomsoever he pleased. Accordingly he has made out the following schedule of those in Egypt.”
The full list of Meletian clergy follows, after which St Athanasios says, “These Meletius presented actually in person to the Bishop Alexander, but he made no mention of the person called Ischyras, nor ever professed at all that he had any Clergy in the Mareotis.” In other words, Athanasios’ accuser isn’t on the list, and therefore was not one of those re-ordained pursuant to the decision of the First Ecumenical Council.
Patriarch Bartholomew, ignoring the letter of the First Ecumenical Council, distorts the letter of St Athanasios and attempts to claim that the Meletian clergy were received simply by submission of the list alone, without any re-ordination. But taking St Athanasios’ words in context, in tandem with the Nicene letter that precipitated the list of clergy, what actually happened is clear:
- The First Ecumenical Council called for admission of Meletian clergy through re-ordination;
- Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria told Meletios to provide him with a list of his clergy; and
- Those clergy on the list were received by Patriarch Alexander through re-ordination, in obedience to the First Ecumenical Council — not unilaterally.
St Theodore the Studite
Patriarch Bartholomew goes on to say about the Meletian Schism, “This schism troubled the Church up until the seventh century, while those reconciled were admitted into communion with the Church without re-baptism or even through Holy Chrism, as Theodore the Studite informs us all in his Great Epistle to Nafkratios.” Yet again, however, the Patriarch has twisted the words of a saint.
In response to questions from his disciple Nafkratios about how different groups can be called heretics, St Theodore identifies three types of heretic, following Saint Basil the Great: those who deny the Trinity; those who believe and baptize in the Trinity but are heretical in other matters; and those who do not submit to the canons. He goes on to say with reference to this third group, “The ancients by all means call the Meletians, those led astray by the schismatic Meletios, ‘schismatics’ although they do not hold false belief. When they condemn their own schism, as they say, they are received by the Catholic Church.” (See also the original Greek text at the end of this article.)
Here, then, St Theodore speaks in general about the reception of the Meletians into the Church, conditioned upon their condemnation of their own schism. He does not provide details about the manner of their reception into the Church, nor does he say anything about Meletian clergy. At a minimum, though, the words of St Theodore require that all schismatics — whether clergy or laity — must condemn and repent of their schism before they can be received into the Church.
It is almost unfathomable — yet it is true — that Patriarch Bartholomew chose to invoke the Meletian Schism in defense of his actions in Ukraine. The Meletian Schism indeed has striking similarities to the Ukrainian situation, but instead of supporting Constantinople’s actions, the sources cited by Patriarch Bartholomew — and those that he chose not to cite, namely the Letter of the First Ecumenical Council — serve as an indictment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s behavior.
What is especially striking is the audacity of Patriarch Bartholomew (or his ghostwriter) to bear such false witness in a letter to a fellow primate, Archbishop Anastasios. We can only pray that the Patriarch is moved by the exposure of this fraud to repent of his actions, and that the Church as a whole can take this opportunity to reflect upon the Meletian Schism and the many other episodes in church history that provide guidance to us in our present crisis. May God have mercy on us all.
Greek original for the St Theodore the Studite quotation, from Epistle 40, in: Theodori Studitae Epistulae, ed. Georgios Fatouros (Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1992), 1:115-120, p. 117.
Εἰ δὲ φαίης· καὶ πῶς λέγονται αἱρετικοὶ καὶ οὗτοι καὶ πάντες οἱ μεταγενέστεροι; τοῦτο λέγομεν καὶ νοοῦμεν, οἱ μὲν πρῶτοι κυρίως αἱρετικοὶ διὰ τὸ εἰς αὐτὸ τὸ καίριον τῆς τριαδικῆς ἡμῶν πίστεως ἠσεβηκέναι, οἱ δὲ δεύτεροι κατὰ κατάχρησιν καὶ ὡς ἐκ τῶν πρώτων παρηγμένοι, ὁμολογοῦντες δ’ ὅμως εἰς τριάδα καὶ πιστεύειν καὶ βαπτίζειν, ἐν ἰδιώματι οἰκείῳ τῆς ἑκάστης ὑποστάσεως καὶ οὐχὶ μιᾶς τῶν τριῶν ὑπαρχούσης, κἂν ἐν ἄλλοις ᾑρέτιζον· τοῦ τρίτου παράδειγμα αὐτὸς ὁ ἅγιος πάλιν φησίν, οἷον εἴ τις ἐν πταίσματι ἐξετασθεὶς ἐπεσχέθη τῆς λειτουργίας καὶ μὴ ὑπέκυψε τοῖς κανόσιν, ἀλλ’ ἑαυτῷ ἐξεδίκησε τὴν προεδρίαν καὶ τὴν λειτουργίαν. καί γε ὡς οἱ δεύτεροι ὁμώνυμοι τοῖς πρώτοις, οὕτω καὶ οἱ τρίτοι ὁμώνυμοι τοῖς δευτέροις. ἀμέλει τοὺς Μελετιανοὺς σχισματικοὺς οἱ πάλαι καλοῦσι Μελετίῳ τῷ σχισματικῷ συναπαχθέντες, καίτοι μὴ ὄντας κακοδόξους· ἀναθεματίζοντες γὰρ τὸ ἴδιον σχίσμα, ὥς φασι, δεδεγμένοι εἰσὶ τῇ καθολικῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ.