I only learned of him when reading Michael Llewellyn-Smith’s biograph of Eleftherios Venizelos “The Making of a Greek Statesman, 1864 – 1914.” There are only about half a dozen references to Metaxakis and it includes some biographical facts. Metaxakis was appointed Archbishop of Athens and then deposed. He was elected Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and “was persuaded to abdicate.” Then he became Patriarch of Alexandria.
Clearly, he was no ordinary man and after reading several dozen articles about him I decided that I needed to write something about his careers.
He had a varied and highly controversial career in the Orthodox Church that had its successes and precipitous falls. His policies and ideas have been judged in violently different ways. They are called satanic by some and admirable by others. What did he do?
A few facts about him before we get to the interesting part of his life. Meletios was born in Crete in 1871. In 1891 he became a deacon and subsequently got a position as secretary of the Holy Synod with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. He displayed organizational talent, editorial ability and writing acumen. Unfortunately, in 1908 he was tossed out of his position under mysterious circumstances. According to one story, he was involved in a plot to depose the Patriarch of Jerusalem and we know for certain that his dismissal was caused by "activity against the Holy Sepulchre.”
That did not hamper his career path, it seems, because in 1910 he was elected to the important position of Archbishop in Cyprus. In 1912 he attempted to become Patriarch of Constantinople but failed to be elected. In 1918 he was elected Archbishop of Greece. In 1921 he became Patriarch of Constantinople and in 1926 he he became Patriarch of Alexandria and all of Africa.
ARCHBISHOP OF ATHENS
Some details are necessary. When in 1918 he was elected Archbishop Meletios III of Athens, he rose to the highest religious office in Greece. How did he get that position? He got it during the ascendancy of Eleftherios Venizelos, a Cretan whom he supported with dedication, indeed with fanaticism, who also happened to be his uncle.
Metaxakis went to the United States while Archbishop of Athens and began organizing the Greek parishes with a view to taking them away from the Patriarchate of Constantinople to which they were legally attached and making them part of the Church of Greece. When he became Patriarch of Constantinople by sleight of hand he reversed himself and claimed that the American Archdiocese belonged with Constantinople. He created chaos and it took the Greek-Americans years to unravel the mess.
He fortunes plummeted when Venizelos lost the elections. The royalists gained the upper hand and Metaxakis was fired by royal decree. The royalist Archbishop that he replaced, got his job back in 1920.
According to Konstantin Shemliuk of the Union of Orthodox Journalists, Meletios was not only dismissed but “he was brought down to the position of an ordinary monk and imprisoned in the St. Dionysios Monastery on the island of Zakynthos, from where he actually fled to America in 1921.” Shemliuk is the only writer that I found who referred to Meletios’s demotion.
PATRIARCH MELETIOS IV OF CONSTANTINOPLE
Metaxakis did not spend too much time in the wilderness or in the monastery because there was an opening in Constantinople for the top position in the Orthodox Church, that of Patriarch. While in America, he was elected to the throne of Orthodoxy in November 1921 but the process has been severely criticized, to put it politely.
According to church historian Matthew Namee “of the 68 bishops entrusted with a vote, only 13 were present at the meeting, while 5 more gave their vote to one of those 13 attendees. So that left 18 votes, and 16 went to Meletios. Seven of the absent bishop-electors were metropolitans, and those seven metropolitans comprised a majority of Constantinople’s 12-member Holy Synod. These seven gathered in Athens and declared Meletios’ election to be invalid. They telegraphed Meletios in America, ordering him not to come to Constantinople. He ignored the order. Meanwhile, the Holy Synod of Greece deposed Meletios. He ignored that, too.”
There were other objections to his election including that of the Church of Greece. At this time however the fortunes of King Constantine were waning - he was deposed by the military - and the new government ordered the Church of Greece to recognize Meletios as Patriarch. The Church did. The Archbishop of Athens refused and he was dismissed.
One of his first acts as Patriarch Meletios IV was, as I said, to transfer the Archdiocese of North and South America that he had recently placed under the jurisdiction of Athens back to Constantinople.
He advanced the idea of the union of Anglicans and Orthodox and attended service with them to the great distress of some. He became a Freemason, a fact denied by some but proven as factual by others.
Meletios IV was instrumental in the adoption of the Gregorian over the Julian calendar, the former conforming with astronomical reality, the latter ingrained by traditional use. According to Namee on “June 1, Meletios was attacked by a mob connected with the “Turkish Orthodox Church,” who dragged him down a flight of stairs, tore at his robes, and demanded that he resign.” A British ship eventually took him away and he resigned.
PATRIARCH MELETIOS II OF ALEXANDRIA
After spending some time in the wilderness, mostly in the United States, he saw an opportunity in Egypt where the Patriarch of Alexandria had died. Meletios was an outsider in Egypt and his candidacy was considered almost hopeless. The election was hard-fought with representative of Greece and Great Britain being involved as well as the clergy and Greek communities of Egypt. Meletios’s victory in June 1926 is credited to his diplomatic skills and his expert handling of his candidacy. In short, he snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
He was active in organizing Orthodox parishes in Africa and tried to get rid of civilian participation in the election of the patriarch. He brought in the Gregorian calendar but much of what he did was reversed after his death.
One writer summarizes his career as “one of the most controversial personalities in the history of the Orthodox Church. He is the only clergyman, who successively led three autocephalous Orthodox Churches becoming Archbishop of Athens, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and eventually Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, while he served in key positions at the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the Church of Cyprus.”
There are many condemnations of Metaxakis but none I think more vicious than the one by “the blessed Confessor-Hierarch Chrysostomos (Kavourides), former Metropolitan of Florina.” He accuses Metaxakis of being a) a Freemason, b) an Innovator, c) an Ecumenist. Those are not idle charges.
A Freemasonry is a satanic religion that is the antithesis of everything that the Orthodox church stands for. An Orthodox person who becomes a freemason should be excommunicated. A cleric should be deprived of his position.
As an innovator, Metaxakis stands accused about of numerous sins. Adopting the Gregorian calendar, attempting to change the fasting tradition, trying to allow priests to marry a second time, thinking of letting them dress like Anglican pastors, the list goes on with examples that will bring ruin to the Orthodox Church. An ecumenist is one who believes that Christian churches should unite. Can an Orthodox receive last rites from a Catholic priest in certain circumstances? No. Meletios is accused of being a Luther who has committed gross sins against the Orthodox Church.
Meletios died on July 28, 1935, before he could bring all these evils upon Orthodox Christians. One of his critics notes gleefully that “he was found dead under his bed with his tongue sticking out of his mouth.” God had punished him?
THE LIVES OF PATRIARCHS
By dying under his bed, Meletios may have been luckier than most of his colleagues who served as patriarchs of Constantinople. Claude Delaval Cobham in his book The Patriarchs of Constantinople (Cambridge, 1911) gives a staggering summary of the lives of the 328 patriarchs, up to 1884.
Of the 328 patriarchs, 140 were deposed and 41 resigned. That means only 137 out of the 328 died without external assistance. What happened to the rest? Here it is: 3 were poisoned; 2 were murdered; 1 was beheaded; 1 was blinded; 1 was drowned; 1 was hanged and 1 was strangled.
And we may also note that between 36 and 1884 A.D. 95 of the patriarchs reigned for less than a year!