The Andrew Thorburn story is returning to media attention. The Age is tonight* reporting that Thorburn “has hired legal counsel and is pursuing legal action against the club after he was forced to resign.”
Thorburn lasted as Essendon’s CEO for less than 24 hours. Journalists went hunting and tracked down several ‘controversial’ comments made in sermons at Thorburn’s local church some 10 years ago before Thorburn had joined. As newspaper columns appeared, Victoria’s Premier, Daniel Andrews came out and publicly attacked Thorburn’s church,
“those views are absolutely appalling.”
“I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry, is just wrong.
“Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”
Within hours Andrew Thorburn was given an ultimatum by the Essendon board, choose the club or his church. Thorburn chose his church.
In a statement, Thorburn explained,
“Today it became clear to me that my personal Christian faith is not tolerated or permitted in the public square, at least by some and perhaps by many. I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed. People should be able to hold different views on complex personal and moral matters, and be able to live and work together, even with those differences, and always with respect. Behaviour is the key. This is all an important part of a tolerant and diverse society…
…Despite my own leadership record, within hours of my appointment being announced, the media and leaders of our community had spoken. They made it clear that my Christian faith and my association with a Church are unacceptable in our culture if you wish to hold a leadership position in society.
This grieves me greatly – though not just for myself, but for our society overall. I believe we are poorer for the loss of our great freedoms of thought, conscience and belief that made for a truly diverse, just and respectful community.”
I’m not here to comment on any potential legal action, for such things are beyond my expertise. As this story will fire up again over the coming days, it is worth highlighting once more the extraordinary nature of the decision made by Essendon Football Club and the interference by Victoria’s Premier.
I was speaking with a member of the Victorian Government recently. He was quite open and adamant in his support of Essendon’s stance against Andrew Thorburn. One on the hand, he acknowledged that it’s against the law to discriminate against a person’s faith, but in the same breath, he insisted Thorburn shouldn’t lead Essendon given his connection with a Melbourne church. Not only that, this MP told me that any suggestion people of faith could lose their job because of their beliefs, is nothing more than ‘scaremongering’. Given that we were literally talking about a live example, I don’t think he was aware of the irony filling his words. Not only that, what a cold response to thousands of Victorians who now feel vulnerable in the workplace.
As I was thinking about the conversation afterwards, the issue is one of semantics or rather, it’s a game of bluff. He sees the issue through the lens of ‘values’, rather than religion.
He could say (correctly so) that it’s against the law to discriminate against someone in the workplace on the basis of their religion and yet he also believes it’s legitimate to force someone out of their job if their values don’t align (Ie their religious values). In other words, we don’t live in a society where there is a neat division between religion and secular, or between private and public. Everything is religious. Every value and action, every job and interest, is shaped by underlying commitments and views of the world, and these inevitably take on a religious flavour. It’s not as though some sexual ethics belong to a neutral space while religious views are found elsewhere. All values are religious in nature.
Victoria is like Ancient Rome where there is a god for everything. We’ve dispensed with the names; there’s no praying to Juno, Diana and Venus. We simply sacrifice to and live for sexual freedom, power, wealth, or whatever is our ultimate aim. Hence, when a religious view clashes with an assumed (or stated) value, the value wins out as though it’s morally omniscient. That is why football, like cricket and rugby league, is no longer about playing the game. Sport is attached to a set of dogmas, and sponsors often serve as the priests, making compliance certain, while the Board acts as bishop. Of course, an AFL Club isn’t a church or a Christian school where particular religious views are necessary. Having the right kind of religious view shouldn’t be a prerequisite for senior management in the ‘secular’ business or sporting world, but as the Andrew Thorburn case demonstrates, such distinctions no longer apply.
Values is simply a disguised way of talking about a person’s deep beliefs and practices. Values aren’t distinct from religion; values are always an expression of religious convictions, whether we attribute a god to them or not. The situation in Victoria, as our Premier has expressed, is that if a Christian’s ‘values’ don’t align with a place of employment, they may well find themselves receiving similar treatment to Andrew Thorburn. They may protest, as did my politician friend, ‘it’s values, not religion’, but such smoke and mirrors don’t fool anyone.
Essendon’s President David Barham also attempted to play this game of dodgeball. When announcing Thorburn’s resignation, he tried to blur the lines,
“I also want to stress that this is not about vilifying anyone for their personal religious beliefs, but about a clear conflict of interest with an organisation whose views do not align at all with our values as a safe, inclusive, diverse and welcoming club for our staff, our players, our members, our fans, our partners and the wider community.”
Political theologian, Jonathan Leeman, is right,
“secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps as liberal authoritarianism…the public realm is nothing less than the battleground of gods, each vying to push the levers of power in its favour.”
That is the world we inhabit. This is the air we breathe. It may take a little time for HR departments to catch up with the reality of what their guidelines and directives signify, but we no longer have to speculate or hypothesize: we have one very public case in point glaring at us.
Before I finish up, I noticed that there are a few details in The Age reporting that are incorrect:
First, City on a Hill is not a ‘small’ church. It is probably the largest Anglican Church in Melbourne, and one of the largest Anglican Churches in Australia.
Second, it is not a ‘conservative church’ as opposed to normal or standard. City on a Hill adheres to the same beliefs and practices that are typical of Christian Churches across Australia and the world. This Church sits comfortably within the same orthodox Christianity that has existed and flourished for 2,000 years.
Third, there is no homophobic material on their website. What one finds, as with other Christian Churches, is the Jesus driven belief that sex is a great God given gift reserved for marriage between a man and a woman. And let’s not forget, that Australian law reflected a classical view of marriage until 5 minutes ago. There is nothing phobic when Jesus called out sexual transgression. He did so because people matter and ignoring God’s design is a perilous trip. The extent to which Jesus loved was crucifixion. Jesus didn’t bleed hatred on the cross, but love and mercy toward the same people transgress God’s good ways.
One may not like or agree with Christianity but throwing around language like phobic is lazy and untrue. Churches follow Jesus’ example, by loving and welcoming everyone who comes along. We don’t have to agree with every word, action, and value in order to love and welcome another. If that ethic was true, then Jesus is the world’s worst social heretic! Thank God, that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
*all the major newspaper were reporting the story by the end of the evening