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  • Best of 2022: Is the Essendon saga evidence of faith under siege?

Best of 2022: Is the Essendon saga evidence of faith under siege?


It is highly doubtful that the Essendon Football Club appreciated the reaction that would occur when it presented its new CEO, Andrew Thorburn, with the option of giving up his role as a lay leader in the City on a Hill Anglican Church, or resigning from his role with the Club. The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter Comensoli, immediately issued a statement: ‘It is outrageous that a person of good character has felt that he must choose between a public leadership role and being an active member of a Christian community’, intimating that he would not renew his membership of the club.

The Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Phil Freier also defended Thorburn and the City on a Hill church, even though he held to a more liberal form of Anglicanism. It was not just Christian leaders that spoke up — Adel Salman, the president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, described the episode as the ‘most stark example’ of organisations sacrificing religious freedom at the altar of corporate image.

My sense is that such statements reflected widespread concerns amongst people of faith, even if many were also uneasy about how the issue was caught up in the culture wars, and thus were uncomfortable with some of the voices who came to Thorburn’s defence.

Controversies that had emerged just prior to this were reminders about the significance of sport and its role in culture and societal values. The Hawthorn AFL club was caught up in a damaging and ongoing scandal around the treatment of indigenous players in recent years. And then in Soccer, Football Australia banned for life a supporter of the Sydney United 58 club who was filmed making a Nazi salute during the Australia Cup final. Malcom Knox observed that it was a reminder ‘that free speech is not a limitless right purchased unconditionally with the entry ticket to a football match. And that anyone who bans a fascist is not a fascist too.’ Where did the Essendon saga fit?

Our Football codes have experienced significant challenges in this space around values, especially around LGBTI issues. In 2018 the case of Rugby’s Israel Folau dominated the headlines over his claim to the right to express his religious views and his employment with Ruby Australia. In Rugby League this year, Manly’s decision to adopt a pride jersey without consulting the players led to a damaging split with many of the players of Pacific Islander heritage standing down from that round. Manly didn’t win another game in the season. In AFLW, it appears that a player of Islamic faith has decided again to stand down during the pride round, though there seems to be greater public understanding of her position.

Again, where does Thorburn fit in? Leaving aside any issues about his appointment or his performance as CEO of NAB, there seems little reason to attack him on his religious views. Indeed, his record may seem to be progressive: during his time in charge of the bank, the NAB sponsored the Midsumma Festival, the annual Pride March, the first Pride match between St Kilda and Sydney, and then the AFL’s Pride Round itself. The bank, under Thorburn, also supported the campaign for marriage equality. No personal statements by Thorburn have emerged that have contradicted this record.


'One immediate area of concern centres around employment, especially at a time when clubs, and so many corporations, feel compelled to adopt values’ position. There is a resulting tension between such positions around diversity, inclusion etc and freedom from religious discrimination.' 


Essendon and Thorburn’s worlds collided when news reports emerged that characterised Thorburn’s active membership, and indeed leadership, in an Anglican church that was deemed radical. Sermons on the church’s website described homosexual activity as sinful and strongly attacked abortion. It is worth noting here that these sermons dated from a time before Thorburn was a member of the church. 

‘The club’, in the words of one journalist, figured it might be awkward for him to have to reconcile some of this uncontrollable holy-rolling with the football league’s strictly policed commitment to diversity and inclusion’. And so Thorburn was given a choice, and he chose his faith, and his conscience.

After a brief moment of hesitancy, Thorburn came out firing: ‘It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role.’ He went on to assert that: ‘True tolerance, inclusion and diversity also includes people of faith’

As it turns out, there was nothing particularly radical about the theology of Thorburn’s church. I suspect many at first thought that the church at the centre of this was akin to American fundamentalist churches, and to be honest, we could feel a bit superior about this. However, the church is Anglican, of the evangelical wing, and holds, together with the vast majority of Christian churches, that that human life begins at conception, marriage is between a man and a woman and sex should be confined to marriage. These views are also held by most of Islam and by many orthodox Jews.

Yet the view of Essendon’s president Dave Barham appears to be that the values espoused by the church contradicted those of the club, and that Thorburn had to choose. The leadership role Thorburn had at the church was a complication, but essentially so, because Barham believed the values of this church were in conflict with those of Essendon. There is no general employment clause about hold a role in another organization.

Under Victorian law it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee because of their religious belief or activity. As workplace lawyer Josh Bornstein notes it may be that Essendon breached the Equal Opportunity Act in its dealings with Thorburn. One immediate area of concern then, centres around employment, especially at a time when clubs, and so many corporations, feel compelled to adopt values’ positions. There is a resulting tension between such positions around diversity, inclusion etc and freedom from religious discrimination, for as Bornstein notes ‘Company values and inclusion policies cannot override a statute.’


'I find it hard to stomach attacks on a pro-life position that speaks to the rights of the most defenceless in our society as extremist, and as a reason to preclude a role at Essendon. I would certainly not be able to support a club if this was the position, namely that the club is explicitly pro-abortion.'


Further complicating the situation is an ethical consideration. Given his record at NAB, of being able to separate his own beliefs from the bank’s support of LGBTI events, is Thorburn essentially a victim of simply being a member of a church, of what Joe Hildebrand describes as ‘a wildly new and dangerous phase of the fundamentally illiberal, irrational and unjust notion of guilt by association’?

One can also argue the stunning hypocrisy of many sports in going down the road of advocacy and identification with social causes. A major world sponsor of sport, Qatar Airways, represents a nation where being gay is illegal. Many sporting bodies, including our own AFL, have been keen to exploit market opportunities in China, potentially the world’s biggest market, and certainly the world’s biggest violator of human rights. And how dependent have sports become on sports betting and the promotion of betting apps etc, despite the social damage it inflicts?

From a religious perspective the stakes are not inconsiderable, even allowing for a certain degree of hyperbole. Is there really a fundamental clash of values between faith and Essendon, and indeed, in the public square more generally? Archbishop Comensoli was correct in framing the challenge: ‘It leaves ordinary people of faith questioning if they can publicly hold their committed beliefs, or even to be able to exercise leadership and service in the community.’ Ultimately, this challenge may face Catholic schools, hospitals and social services in their dealings with governments or indeed, with the private sector.

Premier Dan Andrews did not offer reassurance by going on the attack, dismissing the beliefs of the City on the Hill church as homophobic, and asserting that the only issue in the abortion debate is the woman’s right to choose. On the latter, it is particularly offensive for the pro-life position to be dismissed as extreme. I readily concede there are challenges for the Christian churches around LGBTI issues, though I would claim that our tradition should always put the wellbeing of the person first. It is why I expressed the position I had on the same-sex marriage plebiscite. But I find it hard to stomach attacks on a pro-life position that speaks to the rights of the most defenceless in our society as extremist, and as a reason to preclude a role at Essendon. I would certainly not be able to support a club if this was the position, namely that the club is explicitly pro-abortion. And in America there are corporations that are taking such a view, further polarizing its society.

Christians have long memories, and one of the few amusing moments in the debate over Thorburn was a tweet that noted that when Emperor Julian came to power in the Roman empire in the East (AD 361), he sacked all government officials who believed in Christ! Such people, he believed, were incompatible with the enlightened society he wanted to foster. Perhaps Barham is a fan! It is only a few generations ago when advertisements here in Australia for some prominent retail companies included the phrase ‘Catholics need not apply’, and Essendon itself had a reputation for a period of time as a non-Catholic club.

Christians, however, do have to be conscious that they do become detached from reality. We live in a pluralist, and, in many ways, secular society. We must be aware of conveying any sense of entitlement or special status. At the same time Christians can be expected to demand equal treatment in line with all in our society.

The fact is that some Christians, and perhaps all people of faith, feel under siege. In many countries Christians face deadly persecution. And in western countries like France, churches and places of worship have been vandalized or attacked in the last few years. There is a perception that Christian viewpoints are being excluded from the public square. Anti-Semitism is on the rise also on the far left and right. And ordinary Muslims can so easily be targeted because of violence perpetrated by Islamist extremists.

More widely, there are growing issues around tolerance, diversity and freedom of speech in modern societies. Dissenting voices can be silenced too easily, even on university campuses, and media outlets are becoming so partisan, even to determining what is reported as news. The right to hold minority views, even around causes that evoke much passion, need to be respected. My brother Jesuit, Frank Brennan SJ, commented on his support for the same-sex marriage plebiscite: ‘I did so on the understanding that the 38 per cent who voted no would suffer no adverse discrimination for their religious views and would be free to participate respectfully in all aspects of public life, even in Victorian football clubs’.

And there is a lesson for sporting clubs, as well as corporations etc: as Malcolm Knox put it: the intersection (call it a five-way pile-up) of religion, free speech, minority rights, virtue signalling and sportswashing are repeatedly coming together in the ugliest public collisions, benefiting precisely no one’. He goes on to warn them about playing identity politics, of seeing important cultural issues as branding opportunities, and of being caught up in unintended consequences that weaken them, and they in effect become exclusive rather than inclusive. This appears to be the position Essendon finds itself in, and it needs to extract itself from it.




Fr Chris Middleton SJ is the rector of Xavier College in Melbourne.

Main image: Andrew Thorburn. (Getty)

Topic tags: Chris Middleton, Essendon, Andrew Thorburn, Christianity, Faith, Inclusion, Diversity



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