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Dependent on grace, not perfection

15 April 2016

I DID NOT know whether I would be able to cope with the family drama The A Word (BBC1, Tuesdays). The “A” is for autism — and my fear was that we would be subjected to a weird mixture of special effects and sentimental overacting. But I was wrong.

The series has been brilliant. It centres on five-year-old Joe, who does not mix easily with other children: he is terrified of party games, and his tantrums are soothed only by his headphones, which blast music into his ears. Joe is, as we say these days, “on the spectrum”, which means that he has serious communication difficulties, and is easily distressed by sensations and emotions that he cannot interpret.

His extended family deny that there is a problem, and then gradually begin to realise that there is. But they cannot handle Joe’s difficulties: they have communication problems of their own, including a past affair, a patriarchal grandfather, a silently suffering adolescent daughter, and a mother who reverts to bullying behaviour when she cannot get her own way. It sounds extreme and tragic, but the reality is that it is all very human, and often extremely funny.

The drama reveals how Joe’s innocent vulnerability exposes the vulnerabilities that the adults have suppressed in themselves. They want to “fix” Joe, but the more they try and fail, the more their own inadequacies are revealed. If they are to cope with Joe, they have first to learn how to cope with themselves.

There is a Christian perspective on this, which begins from the fact that Christians are supposed to live as those who are not required to be perfect, but to depend on the grace of God and on one another. Accepting our problems is the beginning of compassion, because it is only as self-accepting that we are liberated to accept others as they really are.

I once met a priest who was mother to two children with problems that were even more severe than Joe’s. The challenges of her and her husband’s everyday life were extraordinary, and she would be the last to say that she had got things neatly sorted out. She lived day by day, and sometimes hour by hour.

And yet she was one of the warmest and most encouraging people I have ever met. I cannot help feeling that it was because she lived with reality, where we cannot control much of what happens to us, and where the weak and the strong must work together, if both are to find a degree of freedom and fulfilment.

I wait to see what will happen to Joe’s family in the two episodes still to come.


The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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