Meletius of Lycopolis, Bishop of Lycopolis in Egypt, gave his name to a schism of short duration. There is uncertainty as to the dates of his birth, his death, and his episcopate. It is known, however, that he was bishop of the above-mentioned city as early as 303, since in a council held about 306 at Alexandria by Peter, archbishop of that city, Meletius was deposed for several reasons, among others for sacrificing to idols. Meagre references by St. Athanasius were our only source of information until important documents were discovered in the eighteenth century by Scipio Maffei at Verona in a manuscript dealing with the Meletian schism in Egypt. The three documents preserved in Latin are undoubtedly authentic. There is first, a letter of protest by four Egyptian bishops, Hesychius, Pachomius, Theodore, and Phileas, dating at the latest from 307, from the very beginning of the schism of Meletius, and before the excommunication of the latter who was termed by the bishops, dilectus comminister in Domino (beloved fellow minister in the Lord). “We have heard”, said the bishops, “grievous reports regarding Meletius who is accused of troubling the divine law and ecclesiastical rules. Quite recently, a number of witnesses having confirmed the reports, we feel compelled to write this letter. Meletius is undoubtedly aware of the very ancient law which forbids a bishop to ordain outside his own diocese. Nevertheless, without regard for this law, and without consideration for the great bishop and father, Peter of Alexandria, and the incarcerated bishops, he has created general confusion. To vindicate himself he will perhaps declare that he was compelled to act thus, as the congregations were without pastors. Such a defense however, is worthless, as a number of visitors (circumeuntes) had been appointed. Were they neglectful of their duties, their case should have been presented before the incarcerated bishops. If the latter had been martyred, he could have appealed to Peter of Alexandria, and thus have obtained the authority to ordain”. Second, an anonymous note added to the foregoing letter and worded thus: “Meletius having received the letter and read it, paid no attention to the protest and presented himself neither before the incarcerated bishops, nor Peter of Alexandria. After all these bishops, priests, and deacons had died in their dungeons at Alexandria, he immediately repaired to that city. Among other intriguers there were two, a certain Isidore and one Arius, seemingly honorable, both of them desirous of being admitted to the priesthood. Aware of the ambition of Meletius and what he sought, they hastened to him, and gave him the names of the vistors (circumeuntes) appointed by Peter. Meletius excommunicated them and ordained two others, one of them detained in prison, the other in the mines.” On learning this, Peter wrote to his Alexandrian flock. Here comes the third document, in which occurs the phrase interpreted as follows: “Having heard”, said Peter, “that Meletius, without considering the letter of the blessed bishops and martyrs, has intruded himself into my diocese, and deprived my deputies of their power, and consecrated others, I advise you to avoid all communion with him until I can bring him before me face to face in the presence of prudent men, and investigate this affair”.
The conduct of Meletius was all the more reprehensible in as much as his insubordination was that of one in very high office. St. Epiphanius and Theodoret tell us that Meletius stood next in rank to Peter of Alexandria, of whom he was jealous and whom he was basely endeavoring to supplant at the moment, when Peter was forced to flee from persecution and live in hiding. It was not only against Peter, but also against his immediate successors, Achillas and Alexander, that Meletius maintained his false position. This we know from St. Athanasius, an authoritative witness. Comparing the information given us by St. Athanasius with that furnished by the documents above, the date of the beginning of the Meletian schism may be determined with fair accuracy. It was evidently during the episcopate of Peter, who occupied the See of Alexandria from 300 to 311. Now St. Athanasius in his “Epistola ad episcopos” states positively that “the Meletians were declared schismatics over fifty-five years ago”. Unfortunately the date of this letter is contested; the choice lies between 356 or 361. However, St. Athanasius adds: “The Arians were declared heretical thirty-six years ago”, i.e. at the Council of Nicaea (325). Apparently, therefore, Athanasius was writing in 361. If now we deduct fifty-five years, we have the year 306 for the condemnation of the Meletian schism; and as the persecution of Diocletian raged bitterly between 303 and 305, the beginnings of the schism seem to belong to the year 304, or 305. St. Epiphanius Bishop of Salamis in Cyprus gives a circumstantial account (Haer. lxviii) in contradiction with the foregoing narrative. According to him, the schism arose from a disagreement between Meletius and Peter regarding the reception of certain of the faithful, particularly of ecclesiastics, who had abjured the Faith during the persecution. This account, preferred by some historians to the statement of St. Athanasius, is no longer credible since the discovery of the aforesaid documents by Maffei at Verona. How, then, explain the origin of the account given by Epiphanius? It seems to us it arose in this manner: after Peter’s death Meletius was arrested and sent to the mines; on his way he stopped at Eleutheropolis, and there founded a church of his sect; Eleutheropolis being the native town of Epiphanius, the latter naturally came in contact with Meletians in his early days. They would of course represent in a most favorable light the origin of their sect; and thus their partial and misleading narrative was afterwards inserted by Epiphanius in his great work on heresies. Finally, the references to the Meletian schism by Sozomen and Theodoret quite accord with the original documents discovered at Verona, and more or less with what St. Athanasius has upon the same subject. As to St. Augustine, he merely mentions the schism in passing and very likely follows St. Epiphanius.
The suppression of the Meletian schism was one of the three important matters that came before the Council of Nicaea. Its decree has been preserved in the synodical epistle addressed to the Egyptian bishops. Meletius, it was decided, should remain in his own city of Lycopolis, but without exercising authority or the power of ordaining; moreover he was forbidden to go into the environs of the town or to enter another diocese for the purpose of ordaining its subjects. He retained his episcopal title, but the ecclesiastics ordained by him were to receive again the imposition of hands, the ordinations performed by Meletius being therefore regarded as invalid. Throughout the diocese where they were found, those ordained by him were always to yield precedence to those ordained by Alexander, nor were they to do anything without the consent of Bishop Alexander. In the event of the death of a non-Meletian bishop or ecclesiastic, the vacant preferment might be given to a Meletian, provided he were worthy and the popular election were ratified by Alexander. As to Meletius himself, episcopal rights and prerogatives were taken from him owing to his incorrigible habit of everywhere exciting confusion. These mild measures, however, were in vain; the Meletians joined the Arians and did more harm than ever, being among the worst enemies of St. Athanasius. Referring to this attempt at reunion the latter said: “Would to God it had never happened.”
About 325 the Meletians counted in Egypt twenty-nine bishops, Meletius included, and in Alexandria itself, four priests, three deacons, and one army chaplain. Conformably to the Nicene decree, Meletius lived first at Lycopolis in the Thebaid, but after Bishop Alexander‘s death he took a personal part in the negotiations which united his party to the Arians. The date of his death is not known. He nominated his friend, John, as his successor. Theodoret mentions very superstitious Meletian monks who practiced Jewish ablutions. The Meletians died out after the middle of the fifth century.