Religion, power and public self-representation: the case of Bishop Skelton in Canada
When Pat Storey was elected in 2013 as the first female Anglican bishop in the UK and Ireland, news media the world over took notice. After centuries of gendered hierarchy within the global Anglican Communion, women’s transition into positions of church leadership has been both slow and painful. Likewise, the recognition of same sex marriages has been – and remains – fraught. Yet, some national Anglican churches have embraced both women leaders and same-sex relationships. Indeed, in the region of Vancouver, Canada, (now retired) Bishop Michael Ingham blessed same sex marriages four years before they were legalized by the Canadian federal government; and his successor, Bishop Melissa Skelton, has carried on his legacy.
For those within the fold, church polity can wield considerable power over their personal and relational well-being. As such, the election of church leaders is a significant event for countless people – and particularly for church members whose experience of organized religion has been characterized by judgement and marginalization.
As both a woman and a “cradle Anglican,” I have watched developments in these areas with interest for more than 30 years. Only recently, however, have I begun to integrate this interest into my scholarly work.
First – in a book chapter describing Bishop Skelton’s self-presentation in the 2013 election that ushered her into her current position – I experimented with combining different methods of analyzing discourse (Power, 2015). I found here that, contra her depiction in the mainstream media, Skelton neither referenced nor invoked her gender in any of her campaign materials. This suggests that, although her gender was clearly recognized by others as a salient aspect of her identity, Skelton herself chose not to draw attention to it in the lead-up to this election. One can only speculate as to the motivations behind this decision, but – given the decades of debate within the Anglican Communion around the ordination of women, and the fact that opposition to the ordination of female bishops remains strident in parts of the Anglican Communion – Skelton’s elision of her gender may have been strategically intended to downplay a potentially disadvantageous identification.
Similarly, Skelton made no mention in her campaign materials of same-sex marriages, despite the fact that blessing LGBTQ couples had been one of the chief concerns in the years leading up to this election, both in her diocese and across the Anglican Communion. She did, however, make public her support for same-sex blessings after her electoral success – thus clearly representing herself as a theological liberal (endorsement of same-sex relationships being widely bound to liberal forms of Christianity). Was it then the case that, within her campaign materials, Skelton strategically avoided controversial issues, like a politician seeking to “protect and further [her] own [career]” (Obeng, 1997, p. 49)?
Second, I have recently presented a conference paper comparing Bishop Skelton’s campaign materials with those of the other seven episcopal hopefuls against whom she competed for the privilege of donning the mitre, and comparing all of these candidates’ self-presentations with those found in regular party-political elections. In this paper – despite the fact that the Diocesan episcopal election was a distinctly low-budget affair, with the genres involved more closely resembling those you would see in a job application than in a regular election – I found similarities between Skelton’s self-presentation and that of Canada’s recently elected Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, whose vision of “positive politics” won over all but Canada’s most thoroughly Conservative provinces. Like Trudeau, Skelton’s platform was framed in distinctly positive terms, making minimal reference to the issues of division and decline that have plagued the Diocese of New Westminster for over a decade.
I also found other similarities between the campaign materials produced by Skelton’s fellow episcopal candidates and those produced in what I will call here “secular” elections (although I have reservations about the term “secular” which I won’t go into here). For example, like secular politicians, Skelton and her counterparts framed the election process using the metaphor of a “journey”; they each also used particular key words to align themselves with certain issues and to frame the election in those terms; and personal pronouns (I, we and you) were used strategically to engage the electorate in a shared or collective identity. Unlike in secular elections discourse, by contrast, the episcopal candidates in my study projected character ahead of policy, thus presupposing and playing to the moral sensibilities of their electorate. They also made extensive religious references, thereby reflecting the religious context of the election and constructing their audience as religiously literate, but presupposing very little shared knowledge or context outside of religion.
These results clearly illustrate the fact that discourse is “situated in, shaped by and constructive of circumstances that are more than and different to language” (Anthonissen, 2003, p. 297). They also push us to recognize both similarities and differences between discourses produced in different contexts, and – in this case – to consider the extent to which aspects of secular politics have set up shop in, and transformed, the religious realm.
The ways in which various discourses interpenetrate has long been of interest to discourse analysts, but I would argue that some discourses and contexts have received considerably less attention than is warranted by their cultural significance. Religion is one such issue; economics is another, which I have only just begun to explore, considering the impact of the Anglican Church’s declining attendance and corresponding financial troubles on the election of Bishop Skelton – a former product manager for Proctor and Gamble, and a “bishop with business sense” (Bailey, 2014).
Finally, in a paper currently under review, I have explored media representations of the consecration of the UK and Ireland’s first female Anglican Bishop – Pat Storey – situating these portrayals within post Mary Robinson Ireland. Here, I found not only a lack of gravitas and inaccuracies about and unfamiliarity with church traditions, but also inattention to significant details coupled with excessive focus on Storey’s personal and familial characteristics (as has been typical of media representations of powerful women in various domains). Nevertheless, a clear majority of media depictions displayed a positive stance towards Bishop Storey’s appointment – suggesting a very mixed (i.e., simultaneously sexist and progressive) perspective within the mainstream media.
I would encourage all students (and professional scholars!) to allow their own stories to shape their research agenda: we each come from very different places (geographically, as well as culturally, politically, intellectually, spiritually, etc.). Some of these places are more (or less) privileged; some more (or less) socially sanctioned. Subjecting all of them to critical inquiry can be very enriching, not only to ourselves, but to the scholarly (and other) communities of which we are a part.
Anthonissen, C. (2003). Interaction between Visual and Verbal Communication: Changing Patterns in the Printed Media. In G. Weiss & R. Wodak (Eds.), Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity (pp. 297-311). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bailey, I. (2014). Q&A Rev. Melissa Skelton A bishop with business sense. The Globe and Mail, January 2, 2014. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/a-bishop-with-business-sense/article16182397/ Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/a-bishop-with-business-sense/article16182397/ Obeng, S. G. (1997). Language and politics: Indirectness in political discourse. Discourse & Society, 8(1), 49-83.
Power, K. (2015). Religion, power and public self-representation. In A. Jule (Ed.), Shifting Visions: Gender and Discourses (pp. 49-68). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.