The sins of The Guardian copy desk

OK, OK. I know that the error I am about to dissect appears in a column, not a news report. But this is ridiculous.

Who edits copy for The Guardian these days?

Who writes the newspaper's headlines? Who is in charge of preventing errors? How does the following make it into print? Here's the headline:

Why Mormons do not worship Mary

The headline, alas, is clearly drawn from the lede served up by columnist Tresa Edmunds:

In much of the Christian world, 8 September is recognized as the birthday of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ. Which, as a Mormon, was news to me. Compared with many other Christian sects, Latter Day Saints don’t appear to pay much attention to Mary. We revere her as the mother of Christ, celebrate her sacrifices, and honour her as we do Eve or Sarah or other heroines of the scriptures, but we don’t worship her.

Now there are all kinds of comments -- doctrinal comments -- that could be made about the content of that paragraph. "Revere" is good. Ditto for "celebrate" and "honor." From the perspective of the ancient churches, the key word that's missing is "venerate."

But "worship"? No. No. No.

It seems that we have to go over this once or twice a year. There have, for example, been fits of "worship" language abuse in the coverage of the Catholic Church's decision to declare the late Pope John Paul II as "blessed." Click here and then here for some recent examples.

It is true that the word "worship" can be used in ways that fall short of the "worship" that is reserved, in all of Christianity, for God alone. Perhaps the most famous example is in traditional wedding rites from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

WITH this Ring I thee wed, with my Body I thee worship, and with all my worldly Goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

The key to these frequent errors is that some journalists simply cannot seem to grasp the concept of Christians praying "with" the saints instead of praying "to" the saints. The whole idea is that believers petition the saints -- especially Mary, the Theotokos -- to pray with us to God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

So what's going on? Here's how the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green (the wife of the senior priest at the parish attended by my family) reacted to this Guardian story in a listserv of writers that I frequent. This quote is used here with her permission.

... There is great sloppiness in that use of "worship." The fault is the word "pray." It's just a method of communication. You communicate with the saints via prayer, as you communicate with God, but you view them differently. You can use a phone to call all different sorts of people.

It helps some people when I point out that "pray" originally meant the asking of a favor, "I pray you, pass the A1 sauce" or whatever.

I recall a Chick tract that showed Mary kneeling before God's throne and begging him to forgive people for worshiping her. The author had inadvertently hit on exactly what the understanding of Mary is, that she prays for us.

So, all together now: Other Christian "sects" -- meaning Catholics and the Orthodox, probably -- do not "worship" Mary. Reporters and, especially, copy editors must get this straight, because they are printing errors of fact in terms of church history and doctrine.

IMAGE: A classic icon of St. Mary the Theotokos, with her hand -- as always -- pointing toward her Son in a gesture that symbolically says, "Not me. Him."

Please respect our Commenting Policy