Meletian or Christian?
“It has also been necessary to consider the question of Meletius and those ordained by him”
After the council condemned Arius and his followers, and settled the Easter Controversy, the Bishops, before drawing up the twenty decrees (canons) on matters of ecclesiastical discipline, treated the case of Meletius and the division he had caused in the Church in Egypt.
We are no longer at Nicaea, somehow our time machine failed and has landed us some decades after 325 (the year of the council). Fortunately, unable to reach Nicaea, we reach Alexandria in Egypt, in the humble court of the Bishop Athanasius. Athanasius, made to flee his see by the Meletians and Arians but now returned from exile, is green with memories of the proceedings of the council. He was the deacon who opposed Arius vehemently, the logician whose skill surpassed all the sophism and subterfuges of the Arians. Athanasius refers to Meletius as Melitius.
“I do not wish to wear you out with tales of the excesses of Melitius and his followers”, he says, as he reaches for a volume containing many parchments.
“Bishop Melitius was the bishop of Lycopolis in Thebais (Egypt). I say ‘was’ because he was stripped off all powers and honours of the bishopric by that Great Synod which it pleased Providence to allow me witness. Yet I call him ‘bishop’ because the same august council after stripping him off his bishopric out of mercy left with him the mere title of bishop.
Twenty years before the council at Nicaea, Diocletian, then emperor of Rome, violently persecuted us, arrested many of our beloved fellow-ministers in the Lord who remained firm in the Faith. All who refused to sacrifice to idols were first cast into prisons and faced with unutterable tortures, and when at long last persevering in the Lord, suffered martyrdom. Sadly, many more became lapsi, gave in to the feebleness of the flesh and denied the Faith.
As though there was not enough disturbance from without, Melitius, in the heat of the persecution, began to stir up a division from within. He left his diocese and went about ordaining priests in other dioceses.
What was his excuse? Their bishops were arrested and in prison. But everyone knows that letters could be written to them. When news of his wantonness got to the bishops in whose dioceses he had ordained, these holy bishops now martyred were then in prison. These bishops – Hesychius, Pachomius, Theodorus and Phileas – wrote to him as a fellow bishop urging him to desist.
What happened to our predecessor of blessed memory, Peter, Bishop of Alexandria? Could Melitius claim he was not aware that other bishops in this province were subject to that see, just as the bishops of all the world are subject to the bishop of Rome?
What drove him? Unbridled zeal? No! Pride, avarice, or wanton disregard for ecclesiastical discipline.
He turned the blind eye to the letters of the bishops and even ventured to come into Alexandria to ordain clergy in utter contempt for our father, Peter, of holy memory. Having learned — Yes! and here it is”, he said as he seemed to have finally found a letter he was looking for throughout his speech, “the letter of blessed Peter to his flock concerning Melitius”
Having learned that Meletius had no respect for the letter of the blessed bishops and martyrs, but that he has introduced himself into my diocese — that he has deposed those to whom I had given authority, and consecrated others — I request you to avoid all communion with him, until it is possible for me to meet him with some wise men, and to examine into this business.
“Now”, he continues as he drops the letter after kissing the parchment, “Peter, returning, called a synod and there deposed Melitius , who had been convicted of many offenses, and particularly of having offered sacrifice to idols. But Melitius did not appeal to another synod, neither did he try to defend himself; but he raised a schism, and to this day his followers do not call themselves Christians, but Melitians. Shortly afterwards he began to spread invectives against the bishops, particularly against Peter, and subsequently against Achillas and Alexander my direct predecessor, by whose grace I was present at the very council at Nicaea.”
Athanasius glances through another parchment from the volume which he has been browsing through as he narrated.
“The council deciding on the matter decreed that his ordinations were false, and all whom he had ordained if they be willing to return to the Church, it would be necessary to lay hands on them again. How merciful is our Mother, the Church. Would that she was not as merciful to Melitius!”
Meletius did not return to the Church, but joined forces with the Arians (he ordained Arius) and did more harm than ever. St. Athanasius, that great father of the East, and our, well, narrator, in this episode suffered persecutions at the hands of the Melitians and Arians. They even accused him of murdering a certain bishop of their party, whom they had asked to remain in hiding!
Although the Meletian schism caused the Church much suffering, the sect finally died out at the middle of the fifth century.