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The ‘Thorburn Saga’, Faith and Work: Some Uncomfortable Reflections

Tuesday, 1 November 2022  | Brendan Byrne

When Essendon CEO Andrew Thorburn resigned some 30 hours after his appointment, he not only staked a claim for shortest ever tenure by a CEO, but also set off a debate about the relationship between faith, work and the holding of any office in a public organisation.

Thorburn was appointed CEO in a context of organisational turmoil at Essendon, which has endured poor recent seasons on the field, the acrimonious exit of its previous coach and appointment of a replacement, and ructions among board members.[1] Under such circumstances, any top-level appointment was going to be fraught; however, it is unlikely anyone foresaw what would happen next.

On the day of Thorburn’s appointment, media reports emerged linking him to a congregation called City on a Hill – a conservative Christian congregation attached to the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne which is known for its ‘church planting’ and operates under its own internal board structure. Thorburn, it turned out, was a member of COAH’s board of management.

‘So what?’ you might ask. Afterall, Thorburn had previously been CEO of the National Australia Bank, so it would come as no surprise if the congregation of which he was a member sought to tap into his managerial experience and appoint him to its governing board.

Except that it appears that journalists had done some digging and had uncovered an article by COAH dating to 2013 providing ‘advice’ for people ‘struggling with same sex attraction’. Likewise, a 2016 sermon in which ‘practicing’ homosexuality was declared a ‘sin’ even though same sex attraction was not. Then, to top it off, a 2013 sermon insisted that future generations would look upon abortion with the same ‘sadness and disgust’ with which present generations view the Holocaust.[2]

The revelation of these documents produced by COAH – even though it was nowhere suggested that they represented views held by Thorburn himself – sparked an immediate outcry in both the mainstream and ‘social’ media. Victorian Premier Dan Andrews weighed in and referred to the views expressed in the articles and sermons as ‘absolutely appalling’; and, by the end of the day, the Essendon board announced that Thorburn had resigned after being informed that he had to chose between his role as CEO and his position on the COAH board.

The ‘Thorburn saga’ raises a number of questions, not least of which is the responsibility of the Essendon board and its Chair, David Barham, in appointing Thorburn to the role. Given the Essendon club’s publicly stated commitment to inclusivity and diversity, surely the board ought to have sounded out Thorburn about whether his own views were compatible with the club’s ethos. Likewise, it ought to have scrutinised Thorburn’s background and questioned him about whether he held any current roles that might have been problematic - either in terms of a possible conflict of interest, or with respect to the club’s organisational culture and standards.     

However, the fact that Thorburn was appointed raises other questions. Despite his affiliation to the COAH congregation, should Thorburn have lost his job because of views contained in sermons and articles published in the past by that congregation, views that many in the wider community might have found offensive or harmful?

The simple answer is: no, he shouldn’t.

In just the same way that Israel Folau should not have lost his Rugby Australia contract because he published an Instagram post (on his personal Instagram account) arguing that atheists and homosexuals (among others) are ‘going to hell’.

Just as NRLW player Caitlin Moran should not have been suspended for publishing a Twitter post (again, on her personal Twitter account) calling the late Queen Elizabeth a ‘dumb dog’.

There is a perfectly legitimate view that the opinions expressed by the COAH congregation and Folau are deeply reprehensible, inhuman and contrary to the Gospel. Indeed, Premier Andrews argued that it was his own Catholic faith that guided his condemnation of COAH’s articles and sermons.[3]

Likewise, many would argue that Moran’s views are, at best, deeply misguided, despite expressing sympathy for her position as an Indigenous Australian.[4]

In none of these cases, however, should any of the people involved have been prejudiced in their employment simply because they expressed views that were arguably offensive. And while many might argue that Thorburn ought never have been appointed Essendon CEO, once he was appointed, he was entitled to expect that his employment would not be prejudiced by virtue of his association with a church whose views many find offensive or harmful.[5]

Why should this be the case? For two key reasons.

The first is that if society starts acting punitively against people who express offensive opinions – instead of resisting those opinions via debate and counter-argument – it is highly unlikely the authors of such opinions will be opened to the possibility that they are wrong and need to change their thinking. Rather, they will simply be entrenched in the view that they are being victimised by ‘cancel culture’. This in turn will only motivate them to double down on their position and harden their opposition to any suggestion that their opinions cause real harm to others. In other words, a bad situation will only be made worse.

The second is that acting punitively against others raises the real question: at what point do advocates for the vulnerable and the powerless become tyrannical bullies instead? Just as surveillance capitalism is assigning to corporations the right to be the moral guardians of society – when in fact all they have at heart is their own commercial self-interest[6] – when does societal insistence on ‘accountability’ become the mob violence of vigilantes who lynch someone convicted of a past crime (or as a consequence of guilt by association)?

Should views such as those expressed by COAH pass unchallenged? Of course not. Neither should we believe any nonsense that the ‘Thorburn saga’ is yet another example of a ‘war’ being waged by ‘secular society’ against people of faith. When confronted with offensive viewpoints, society should respond robustly and make clear its opposition to those views. But that response must not replicate evil with evil.

Because if you find none of the above persuasive, consider this: societal opinions and views can (and do) change, and those who think of themselves as being on the side of the angels today may find themselves beheld as being in league with the devil tomorrow. In which case the injunction to ‘do unto others’ becomes a profoundly double-edged sword indeed.


Brendan Byrne is an ordained Uniting Church minister, Chair of the Faith Workers Alliance Management Committee, and creator and host of the podcast Ergasia: A Podcast about Work, Faith, Economics and Theology.

[1] Damien Barrett, ‘Dons set for more change after latest “ego-driven mess”’, 5th October 2022, https://www.afl.com.au/news/854440/barrett-dons-set-for-more-change-after-latest-ego-driven-mess.

[2] Emma Kemp, ‘Andrew Thorburn resigns as Essendon CEO after one day over links to controversial church’, The Guardian, 4th October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2022/oct/04/andrew-thorburn-resigns-as-essendon-ceo-after-one-day-over-links-to-controversial-church.

[3] Benita Kolovos, ‘”That’s my Catholicism”: Daniel Andrews embarks on theological debate with Archbishop over Essendon furore’, 6th October 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/oct/06/thats-my-catholicism-daniel-andrews-embarks-on-theological-debate-with-archbishop-over-essendon-furore.

[4] Author unknown, ‘Caitlin Moran’s post about Queen Elizabeth II’s death prompts strong reaction, with many accusing NRL of double standards’, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 14th September 2022, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-14/caitlin-moran-queen-elizabeth-ii-ray-hadley-reaction/101437200.

[5] Neil Foster, ‘Football CEO dismissed for religious beliefs’, Law and Religion Australia, 5th October 2022, https://lawandreligionaustralia.blog/2022/10/05/football-ceo-dismissed-for-religious-beliefs/#more-8881.

[6] Brendan Byrne ‘The Israel Folau Controversy: A study in corporate censorship and capitalist hypocrisy’, Zadok Perspectives 149 (Summer 2020), 17-21.

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