In writing about this obscure little sect at all, I find myself skating on fairly thin ice. My information is mostly gleaned from conversations with the current incumbent of the Church of Without Saint Paul in Avevale, Father Antony Rede. The sect is by nature non-evangelical and does not proselytise in any way, and getting a member even to talk about his beliefs is, to say the least, hard work. My knowledge of Apaulism is therefore somewhat sketchy, and hedged about with matters on which I have promised to maintain silence: not that the religion itself is secret, but it places a far greater emphasis than most other sects of Christianity upon the personal, to the extent that to talk of one's beliefs to a non-believer is tantamount to violating their personal “belief-space,” as it were. I am not myself an Apauline, but Father Rede and others to whom I have spoken are, and they have demanded certain assurances from me, prior to granting me permission to proceed. I am bound therefore to work within the limits of those assurances: and with that, enough preamble.
Apaulism was founded at the end of the eighteenth century by Damian Elt, an archaeologist and a vicar who was at the time responsible for the cure of souls in Avevale. He was undergoing a long-drawn-out crisis of faith—his theological studies had merely deluged him with facts without reinforcing or supporting his belief, and his flock were palpably falling away. According to reports he was in any case an uninspiring preacher. One writer alludes to “a flatt, dull Voice, as of a Wall that speaketh.” Another mentions that he was inaudible beyond the first two rows of pews. The church of Saint Paul Without, so named because it stood outside the old gates of the village (there had been an earlier one in the centre, destroyed by fire in the 1600s) was in poor repair, and attempts to raise funds to put right the ravages of time had failed. Elt set off for Palestine in the autumn of 1786 to do some digging, with the firm intention, upon his return, of quitting the clergy.
A year later, he returned to England, but not to Avevale at first. It was not till May of 1788 that he arrived at the door of his modest dwelling, the last relic of his family's once considerable estate, went inside, and did not emerge for nine weeks. When he was seen once again in the village, folk remarked on the new brightness in his eye, the new spring in his step. He seemed a different person. And when he got up that Sunday to give the sermon to a rather larger audience than usual, his voice rolled out to the very doors, vibrant with an excitement they had never glimpsed in him before.
In the sermon, he announced that he was leaving the priesthood, not because he had lost faith, but because he had found faith, a new and better faith. He continued:
“This Church is broken from within; its weakness hath devoured it. Likewise the larger Church, it hath been devoured from within by a foul and ravening canker, and presenteth itself as a mere shade or sepulchre of what might have been. I do not speak of Papism, or any of the manifold heresies that the church hath censured and anathematised. This rot lies hard against the heart of the true church, and its name is Paul.”
Elt went on to explain that Paul had transformed what should have been a secret to be held privily in the heart of every man into a political faction with rules and hierarchies that had nothing to do with the true teachings of Christ. Priests had become more pharisaical than the Pharisees whom Jesus denounced, prayer had once again become a thing done in public for show, and the one thing that every form of Christianity held in common was a hunger for worldly wealth and power. (Elt had perhaps forgotten, or was not aware of, the Quakers and similar mystical sects, but nobody bothered to correct him at the time. Apaulism has in fact many similarities with Quakerism, though there are some significant differences; there is, for instance, no particular emphasis laid on simplicity or plainness.) He confessed that he found himself no longer able to practise the rites of the Church of England sincerely, and so this would be his last sermon as an Anglican vicar. When they saw him again, it would be as a servant of the true Saviour, cleansed of the Pauline heresy. And with that, Elt stepped down from the pulpit, left the church, and was seen some minutes later boarding the mail coach for London.
What had prompted this remarkable epiphany? It is known that when Elt unearthed the Nail, which now hangs over the bar of the Club With A Nail In It, it was wrapped in an ancient scroll, written in Aramaic. The original had disintegrated in fairly short order, but Elt had succeeded in making an almost complete copy before time had utterly overtaken the ancient symbols, and presumably translated it into English. (I have not seen the text in question, though I believe it may have been an apocryphal gospel similar to those discovered in the last century at Nag Hammadi. In order to have shown it to me, Father Rede would have to have been convinced that I sincerely wished to become an Apauline myself, and my actual motive—to write this article—was insufficient.) Over the succeeding weeks and months, Elt had worked up, partly from this ancient text and partly from his own imagination, what he believed to be a new and unadulterated form of Christianity. Whether this had any more real connection with true Christianity than, say, Gerald Gardner's neo-paganism had with the worship of the Mother Goddess in ancient times, it may be impossible to say.
Be that as it may, Elt resolved to found his new church in London, as being a more populous place and therefore more likely to contain kindred souls. The story of how he obtained the funding to take over the disused warehouse near the Royal Dock in Deptford that became the first Church Of Without Saint Paul (he was fond of the pun) has been told elsewhere. Growth was sporadic and sluggish, in large part because by the nature of the belief system Elt was not allowed to go out and attempt to “convert” people. His essentially introverted nature may also have played a part: the logistical headaches and sheer hard work involved in setting up his church had worn a good deal of the gloss off his initial enthusiasm, and old patterns were reasserting themselves. New members did drift in, though, over the first year, and by the anniversary of the opening, Elt had a steady congregation of about twenty.
Of course, this has to be seen in perspective: in a cosmopolitan place such as London, even in its poorer areas, there was no shortage of alternative religions, and mushroom growths were springing up all the time. If one knew where to go, one could find practically any shade of belief one cared to name, from Shinto to vodun, and just down the road from Elt's church was the establishment of an unsavoury character named Ned Ticket, whose notion of religious worship was frankly beyond the pale. Apaulism, however, was an altogether steadier sort of creed than some others, and Elt, while at a disadvantage when elevated to a pulpit, could hold an audience in the more relaxed, informal conversational setting that he believed Christ had intended.
Meanwhile, back in Avevale, Sir Louis Grievance, who saw himself as the de facto head of the community, was growing concerned. He had been the prime mover in finding the money for Elt to pursue his dream, but the wayward vicar's dereliction had had unexpected consequences. Avevale, as with so many other things, fell in a gap between bishoprics, and Elt had taken over the church more or less off his own bat on returning from university. Since he had departed, no replacement vicar had been found. The church itself had now almost completely collapsed, and the town was suffering in a hundred small ways from the lack of even the faint and feeble spiritual leadership that Elt had provided. Sir Louis, grumbling all the way, betook himself to London on behalf of the sheep to fetch back the erring shepherd.
It was with a shock of recognition that Elt looked up, at the end of one of his gatherings, to see his father's old friend standing at the back of the room. Their conversation, after Elt's co-worshippers had drifted out, has not been recorded, but the gist of it seems to have been that Elt refused point-blank to leave what he saw as a burgeoning community and return to practise orthodox Christianity, in which he no longer believed, in a village whose inhabitants barely believed it themselves. Sir Louis, to whom all religions were one and belief was optional at best, eventually suggested that he might as well come back and practise his new one. At least that would be something. Elt begged for a day to think about it, and Sir Louis agreed and made his way to the Club With A Nail In It for food and sleep.
Elt put a sign on the doors of the church saying NEXT SERVICE TOMORROW, locked himself in and spent the next day in seclusion, wrestling with his conscience. He remained firmly convinced, and probably rightly so, that if he were to abandon the Deptford church it would be gone within a month. Yet something about the idea of taking his new religion back to his old home appealed to him, and he sincerely felt for the poor little church, so ill-served while he was there and now completely abandoned. He was torn in two as he had never been before. The sun was just breasting the horizon on the following day when he finally reached his decision.
Sir Louis returned to the church in Deptford for the service on the following day, expecting to see and hear the same as he had seen and heard the first time: a circle of chairs, occupied by a motley crowd of sailors, dock labourers, victuallers and some women, with Elt in the centre, talking to them in his low, dull voice and answering questions. It was more like a conversation than any religious service Sir Louis had ever seen, and the old knight, who saw the point of ritual and pageantry if of nothing else, was prepared to be bored for another hour or so, and then to receive Elt's answer, which he assumed would be no. It was his turn to be shocked when Elt selected a husky young man in rough sailor's clothes, put his hands on his shoulders, and ordained him, completely impromptu, as the second and so far only “priest” of Apaulism, before guiding him over to the stunned Sir Louis and commending the two men to each other. “Go and rebuild my church,” he said; and, with a small bow to Sir Louis, returned to his congregation as if nothing had happened.
Barney Rede, for such was the young man's name, turned out to be a man of little education but fierce intelligence, with a powerful if somewhat colourful turn of phrase, a wide experience of the world gained from serving on various merchantmen, and a firm and passionate belief in the new religion; and as Sir Louis studied the strong-boned profile staring out of the coach window on the way back to Avevale, he reflected that had it not been for him, Elt might have been ousted from his own position before too long. Young Rede, he fancied, was not one to let the grass grow under his feet.
Sir Louis was proved correct. Immediately on his arrival in Avevale, Rede threw himself into the renovation of the little church on the hill with an energy and buoyancy that won the admiration of all. He seemed intent on doing all the work himself, and impelled perhaps by shame, perhaps by a reviving community spirit, more and more of the villagers joined in under his direction. Within a matter of months, with judicious injections of money and advice from Sir Louis, the church was fully restored and converted to its new function, and Rede was installed as its custodian: and those who had come to help with the work stayed to hear about the new religion that had inspired such fervour.
As for Elt himself, he lived out his days in his warehouse church in Deptford, speaking every day to his little flock, which never grew nor noticeably shrank. Apaulines made almost no impact on society as a whole; some of the popular papers came to hear of them and humorously dubbed them “appallings,” but the joke soon lost its savour. Elt's death, of pneumonia at the age of seventy-four, spelt the end of the London church; but he died in the knowledge that his new religion was alive and well in the village of his birth, and his old church was in safe hands. The Rede family have kept it ever since, and Avevale remains the last outpost of Apaulism in this country, and possibly the world. And should any of my readers wish to know any more about it, I can only suggest they go there and attend a service. But do not, on any account, say that I sent you.