For ever and ever, in any possible future, the church will always be adjusting imperfectly to new times, and then un-adjusting again later, also imperfectly, with occasional lucky breaks where grace, crackling onwards through history, helps us to a sudden generosity. The church will always be clumsy and time-lagged and complicit in the corruptions of its times. The slowness of the church will sometimes exhibit a kind of wisdom, protecting what is beautiful and vulnerable in our inheritance, insulating us from inane enthusiasm for change as such, guarding us against the illusion that we can renew ourselves at will; but there will always be costs exacted for it too, in human needs recognised too sluggishly, in injustices scandalously tolerated. There will never come a year zero after which we are pure. We’re the league of the guilty, after all, not the league of the shortly-to-become-good. We are a work in progress. We will always be a work in progress. We will always fail, and it will always matter. If we waited for the church to clean up, if we waited for the church to be nothing but good, to do nothing but good, we would wait forever.
So we don’t wait. We don’t, in fact, believe the church is precious because it is good or does good or because it may do good in future. We care about its behaviour, but we don’t believe that its muddled and sometimes awful record is the only truth about it. We believe that the church is precious because it embodies something that the HPtFtU [Human Propensity to F--- things Up] in general and our sins of complicity in particular cannot destroy. Something which already exists now, despite our every failure, and which consequently always has existed for Christians, right through all the dark centuries when slavery and tyranny governed the world, and the church too, and the modern idea of rights was not yet even imaginable. When the abbot was a thug who got the abbey from the thug his brother who was king, when famine raged and the clergy stayed fat, this other thing stayed true. Was already true. Didn’t have to be waited for.
For us, you see, the church is not just another institution. It’s a failing but never quite failed attempt, by limited people, to perpetuate the unlimited generosity of God in the world. It’s built, of all things, on a pun. The church is a body that wants to be a body. That is, it’s a corpus, a corporation, a ‘body’ of people in the sense of being a gathered crowd of them, which aspires to be, to carry on from, to keep alive and present and breathing, the literal corporeal body of Jesus, equipped with two arms and two legs and probably the beard and quite possibly the bad teeth, in first-century Palestine. You do not need to tell us that this is impossible. We know.
But we are committed to the impossible anyway, with our ideals of behaviour that only the God of everything can manage, and our efforts to possess a state of being which is only even visible in this world in glimpses, in metaphors, in temporary comparisons. We’re used to trying and failing at the impossible. And now and again gaining a piece of the possible we wouldn’t have had and wouldn’t have known was possible, if we hadn’t been trying for the impossible beyond it. So the church, we say, is the body of Christ: another comparison with a truth flickering in and out of sight in it. The church is what Christ is doing in the world, nowadays.
This is not the same thing as saying that the church is magically good no matter what, or that good intentions cancel lousy results. It’s not the basis for an excuse, but if anything, for self-accusation. It’s a reason for us to be harder on ourselves rather than easier. But it’s also a reason for never quite losing hope, never letting go of the conviction that, in its stumbling way, the church faces toward grace. That it exists, like Christ, in order to be a channel by which mending enters the world; a mending which, thank God, does not depend on the success of human virtue, individual or collective, but on what breathes and shines through us if we let it. -Unapologetic, p 198