Essendon v church: how Andrew Thorburn fell from AFL grace

<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

When Andrew Thorburn was appointed Essendon’s chief executive on Monday, it was believed he, alongside new senior coach, Brad Scott, would be able to turn around the football club’s misfortunes.

“This is the reset we had to have and I promise you, this is just the beginning,” the club president, Dave Barham, told guests at Essendon’s best and fairest count on Monday night.

But it was, in reality, the beginning of the end.

Within 24 hours, Thorburn resigned due to his involvement with the conservative City on a Hill church, while Barham’s position is under threat.

The resignation has evolved into a wider debate about freedom of speech and religion, with state and federal politicians, faith leaders and media commentators all weighing in.

Related: Legal opinions split on whether Andrew Thorburn could argue discrimination over Essendon resignation

Thorburn is a longtime Essendon fan who, in the months prior to his appointment, had been leading an “independent review” of the club and its cultureafter the dramatic exit of the chief executive, Xavier Campbell, and several board members over the handling of the sacking of senior coach Ben Rutten.

For Barham, Monday’s press conference was a line-in-the-sand moment.

“Our recent appointments of Brad Scott, and today with Andrew, demonstrate our commitment to leadership and providing the right environment to ensure we achieve sustained success as a club,” he told reporters.

He spruiked Thorburn’s credentials, saying “no other AFL club has ever secured the services of an ASX-listed Top 10 company CEO to run its club”.

Thorburn had been at the helm of NAB, but resigned in 2019 after the release of the final report of the banking royal commission, which was scathing of the bank for charging customers – including dead ones – more than $650m in fees for no service.

The report, penned by commissioner Kenneth Hayne, said the bank’s leadership team was unable to learn from lessons of the past.

“I was not persuaded that NAB is willing to accept the necessary responsibility for deciding, for itself, what is the right thing to do, and then having its staff act accordingly,” Hayne wrote.

But it’s Thorburn’s chairing of the City on a Hill church that led to his sudden departure from Essendon.

On Tuesday excerpts of sermons from the church – part of the Anglican archdiocese – espousing anti-abortion and homophobic views appeared on the front page of the Herald Sun.

“Whereas today we look back [with] sadness and disgust over concentration camps, future generations will look back with sadness at the legal murder of hundreds of thousands human beings every day through medicine and in the name of freedom,” read part of a 2013 sermon.

Related: ‘That’s my Catholicism’: Daniel Andrews embarks on theological debate with archbishop over Essendon furore

The church has since published an apology on its website for the language used in that part of the sermon, though the video remains online.

Anglican minister Guy Mason founded City on a Hill in a bar in Melbourne’s Docklands in 2007, and it has now grown to eight churches across Victoria, Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Wollongong.

It is considered more conservative than the mainstream Anglican diocese, which has a history of being progressive, with several women ordained as ministers and churches that offer same-sex marriage blessings.

At City on a Hill, a man and woman are considered as having “equal value but not equal roles”. “At our church, you’ll find many Christ-centred women in positions of leadership and ministry, but eldership belongs to men,” a post online reads.

Dr Muriel Porter, an author and commentator on the Anglican church, says the City on a Hill’s conservatism represented a major division within the institution.

“It used to be over women and the conservatives lost over women when we got women priests and bishops. Conservatives were very upset by that and they have found another issue to be very conservative about and it’s the same-sex one,” Porter tells Guardian Australia.

“We’re a very secular society. Most people simply do not understand what all this is about. And most of them when they hear that [sermon], they think all Christians think like that.”

As for the sermons on abortion and homosexuality, Barham said neither the club nor Thorburn were aware of them until Tuesday morning.

Thorburn says he joined City on a Hill in 2014 and that some of the material on its website pre-dated his involvement.

“I’m not a pastor, my job in a governance role is to make sure it’s run well, I don’t always agree with what’s said,” Thorburn told SEN radio on Tuesday.

That same day Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, described the church’s views as “absolutely appalling”.

“I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry. It is just wrong,” Andrews said.

Related: Andrew Thorburn had to choose between Essendon and his church – their values cannot be reconciled | Michael Bradley

It’s not the first time the premier – a Catholic and an Essendon supporter – has gone head-to-head with the church. His government has legalised same-sex adoptions, banned gay conversion practices, mandated that priests break the seal of confession to report child abuse and decriminalised euthanasia.

Anytime Andrews enters the fray on the issue, it allows him to spruik his government’s progressive credentials and wedge the opposition.

But for Essendon, the premier’s comments caused chaos. A press conference was called that evening.

Barham says Thorburn was given a choice between employment at the club and position at the church. Thorburn chose the church.

“I also want to stress that this is not about vilifying anyone for their personal religious beliefs, but about a clear conflict of interest with an organisation whose views do not align at all with our values as a safe, inclusive, diverse and welcoming club,” Barham said.

Thorburn offered a different view.

“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,” he said in a statement.

“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.”

It’s not the first time religion and sport have mixed. There was the Israel Folau case, in which the athlete was sacked by Rugby Australia for sharing homophobic views he described as religious beliefs on social media.

More recently, several Manly players refused to wear the rainbow jersey on pride day in the NRL, while AFLW player Haneen Zreika will again sit out the pride round on religious grounds.

Lawyer George Haros, who helped secure a reported multimillion-dollar payout for Folau in his unfair dismissal battle with Rugby Australia, says the conflict between religion and sport will continue without legislative reform.

“I did anticipate that we hadn’t seen the end of this, particularly given that Israel’s case didn’t run to finality, which would have given us some firmer understanding of what the law is in relation to this particular issue,” Haros, now a partner at firm Gadens, tells Guardian Australia.

Related: Andrew Thorburn resigns as Essendon CEO after one day over links to controversial church

“But one of the positives that came from Israel’s case was that it propelled some of these issues for people of faith into the spotlight … it led the then federal government to legislate the religious discrimination bill.”

The Morrison government was unable to pass the bill through parliament before it lost the May election.

The new attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, has committed Labor to addressing religious discrimination legislation within this term of parliament, but explicitly ruled out doing it before the end of the year.

“It’s really unfortunate that that bill has been somewhat stymied, and that we don’t have any clarity in relation to this issue,” Haros says.

Other lawyers say Essendon needs to improve its recruitment processes – a view shared by the former club chair Paul Little on ABC Radio Melbourne.

“That information was out there, it was easily accessible,” he said.