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Civil disagreement on a hill

  • 10 October 2022
  It’s hard to fathom how something as blisteringly mundane as the appointment of an AFL club CEO managed to somehow divide a nation and unite all peoples of faith under one banner. Imams, rabbis, evangelical ministers, both Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne Philip Freier and Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne Peter Comensoli have made statements, even the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby weighed in. I haven’t seen many ecumenical initiatives have quite the same unifying effect.  It’s Friday. This story has been over the national media for the bulk of this week and at this point, it’s hard to know what to think or say what hasn’t already been said, except that the fracas around this story has become infinitely more interesting than any AFL game Essendon has played in recent memory. For those who came in late: Andrew Thorburn, a former boss of National Australia Bank, was appointed the Essendon football club CEO on Monday but resigned on Tuesday amid criticism of his role as chair of City on a Hill church, part of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne. This came after the AFL club took issue with a sermon from 2013, espousing pro-life values and urging homosexual people to remain celibate, delivered before Thorburn’s tenure. According to a statement from the Essendon president Dave Barham, ‘comments relating to a 2013 sermon from a pastor at the City on the Hill church’ were in ‘direct contradiction to our values as a club.’ 

Sometimes brand management backfires. The optics of having a CEO associated with an Anglican church was not ideal for Barham and the Essendon football club. But from a brand management perspective, I wonder if having a CEO quit after being asked – in a way that was arguably discriminatory and unlawful – to disavow his association with an Anglican church was considered an improvement? 

It’s easy to get bogged down in these questions and they lead to strange places. This week had me mulling over Karl Popper’s paradox of tolerance. For a free and open society, we need to be tolerant, Popper argued, and true tolerance requires intolerance of the intolerant. That is likely what Essendon president (and with his vocal support, also Victorian Premier Dan Andrews) believes they are doing, yet without evidence of Thorburn’s intolerance this becomes a difficult line to push. In doing so, they become the intolerant. If we extend unlimited tolerance to those who are intolerant, according