Essendon Football Club, the pride of Melbourne’s Australian rules football scene, has drawn a harsh rebuke from the archbishop of Melbourne after they ousted their CEO over his religious affiliation. Andrew Thorburn was made to choose between a promising new career and his Christian faith, after a nearly 10-year-old sermon from a pastor at his Christian church was found to be contrary to the team’s views.
The problems arose when Thorburn’s position as board chair of City on a Hill Church was thrust into focus. Someone found old sermons from a pastor that disparaged homosexuality and abortion. In particular, one 2013 homily, titled “Surviving Same-Sex Attraction as a Christian,” has been held over Thorburn’s head.
ESPN reports that Thorburn was asked to step down just hours after he was appointed CEO of Essendon, a team also known as the Bombers. In a statement, Dave Barham, President of Essendon, explained that Thorburn’s position as board chair at the church could not be reconciled with his position as the Bombers’ CEO:
“The Board made clear that, despite these not being views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally and that were also made prior to him taking up his role as Chairman, he couldn’t continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as Chairman of City on the Hill.”
Barham went on to write that the team is “committed to providing an inclusive, diverse and a safe Club, where everyone is welcome and respected.” However, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli of Melbourne is wondering if this spirit of inclusivity extends towards those of the Christian faith.
In a Facebook post, Archbishop Comensoli questioned whether the Bombers have any respect for diversity at all. He called the entire situation “outrageous”:
“This has been a polarizing and divisive moment. It has not been about respecting diversity. I feel for young women and men currently seeking to further their football or other careers, now asking whether their personal faith might hinder their progress.” The archbishop added, “Sadly, this situation sends a chilling message to ordinary faith believers in Victoria, that they can’t be trusted to exercise leadership and service in the community.”
ESPN noted that Thorburn was “really upset” about the sudden firing. For his part, Thorburn has dealt publicly with the situation with professionalism. In his statement, provided by AFL, Thorburn expressed his disappointment with the organization but maintained his stance on inclusivity:
“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.” Thorburn continued, “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 … This is all an important part of a tolerant and diverse society.”
Thorburn, who is not a Catholic, concluded by expressing his belief that “freedoms of thought, conscience and belief” are the barest requirements for a ”truly diverse, just and respectful community.” Archbishop Comensoli, in taking the part of Thorburn and all who hold strong religious beliefs, mused whether now was the right time to find a new team. The archbishop wrote:
“I became a supporter of the Bombers on my first day ‘in the job’ here. But frankly, if Essendon can’t be inclusive and fair to supporters who hold a religious faith, maybe its time to find a new club.”