It’s been a difficult year for the Essendon Bombers. After entering the season with high expectations, their hopes quickly faded as they slumped to 15th on the AFL ladder. Their mediocrity on the field was quickly matched by their mediocrity off it. Late in the season, the board, riddled with division voted to oust their president and install media executive David Barham. Within a week, Barham had fired coach Ben Rutten after just two years in the job. Four board members and the club CEO quit in protest.
Good news short lived.
Essendon desperate for some good off-season news appointed former North Melbourne coach Brad Scott as the man to coach the Bombers in 2023. This was followed by the news that the club had appointed former National Australia Bank CEO Andrew Thorburn as their new CEO. Not long after his announcement news stories emerged that Thorburn was also the Chair of the City on a Hill Church in Melbourne. The media described City on a Hill as a “controversial” Church for its anti-abortion and same-sex marriage views. If the journalists had done some homework on this story, they would have discovered this controversial Church was part of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne, hardly a denominational outlier. Believing that the lives of children in the womb are precious in God’s sight is standard Christian thought found in most Churches. A Church believing in traditional Christian marriage consisting of one man, one woman, for life is not exactly astonishing news.
Christians recognise that our beliefs are not always shared by the general population.
Christians believe that all people are made in the image of God and should be treated with respect and with dignity whether they agree with us or not. I have no doubt that Andrew Thorburn would have treated all Essendon players and staff with respect irrespective of their faith or sexuality. But that wasn’t good enough for the Bombers, unable to withstand the slightest whiff of media pressure they gave Thorburn an ultimatum; choose the Bombers or the Church. Thorburn held to his principles and quit the Bombers after just twenty-four hours in the role.
An inclusive society?
Is this the new reality for Christian believers? If Essendon starts asking its employees to disown the Church, will other employers do the same? Will other religions also be excluded from the public square? In the 2021 Australian census 39% of Australians identified themselves as having no religion, is there room for the other 61% to participate in an inclusive society?
Tolerance for some.
Prior to Thorburn’s resignation, Premier Daniel Andrews weighed into the debate making his displeasure known. Andrews who makes inclusion a key theme of his premiership described the Church’s views as appalling. Andrew’s inclusivity and tolerance only extends so far. After Thorburn’s resignation, Andrews was asked if there was even a place for religious people to serve in a public role, would they have to hide their beliefs? Andrews said, “No, they might want to have a think about whether they should be a bit more kind-hearted, a bit more inclusive.” In other words, religious people can have a public role if they modify their beliefs, if they change and embrace the values of the state Premier. In Victoria, inclusion is only for those who get Daniel Andrew’s big green tick of approval.
Faith isn't welcome.
If football CEOs can’t be associated with a Church, can captains or coaches? It wouldn’t be surprising if players felt pressure to be silent about their religious beliefs because in Dan Andrews’ inclusive Victoria, faith isn’t welcome. Faith must be modified and diluted, held personally not shared publicly.
When the Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne said the Premier’s comments were contributing to an unhelpful spirit of division, Andrews, raised as a catholic, went on the attack taking the liberty of rewriting Catholic theology. Andrews said that all Victorians should be treated equally and fairly. “For me, that’s my Catholicism. That’s my faith.” Andrews isn’t content to simply run the state of Victoria. He also wants to select the Essendon CEO and lead the Catholic Church. This November Andrews appears to be running for Essendon Football club President, Victorian Premier, and Catholic Pope.
Bottom of the ladder.
Credit where credit is due Andrews is not one to flip-flop on his political beliefs. His apparent disdain for traditional Christian beliefs is consistent and appears to be genuinely held. I don’t expect this latest episode to dent his prospects for re-election in deep-dark red Victoria. As for Essendon, they will begin searching for a third CEO in as many months. Not winning on or off the field, Essendon is likely headed toward the bottom of the ladder both for football and for inclusion.