Andrew Thorburn’s resignation as CEO of the Essendon Football Club only 24 hours after his appointment because of his membership of an Anglican evangelical church that calls homosexuality a sin and made references to the Jewish Holocaust in an article about abortion has set the hares running.
An outlier in the Anglican Communion, City on a Hill holds to a clearly inflammatory line on homosexuality and opposes abortion on the grounds that life begins at conception and it is murder.
Commentators have lined up to condemn Mr Thorburn’s sacking and draw broader conclusions about being judged by association and how “traditional Christians” are now shut out of public life.
Mr Thorburn himself, who would not repudiate the views of his church while maintaining that he was an inclusive and loving person, went on the attack, saying his departure from Essendon raised questions about religious freedom.
“It is troubling that faith or association with a church, mosque, synagogue or temple could render a person immediately unsuited to holding a particular role,” he said.
“That is a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought and participation in our community and workplaces.
“People can hold different views on complex personal and moral matters while being able to live and work together respectfully and harmoniously.”
It was “very important” that his church’s strong views on these matters could be expressed in Australian society.
But it is pretty hard to work together respectfully and harmoniously if you know your boss or team leader believes you are an abomination in the eyes of God, or at best, someone who needs saving, or that certain organisations won’t employ you.
And it’s not just gay people, but those who have sex outside of marriage or without procreation in mind. In fact, sex in general seems to be a problem.
Mr Thorburn may refer to “complex personal and moral matters” but seems happy to be part of a church that reduces this complexity to fundamentalist statements about sin.
The sermon on homosexuality at the centre of the controversy may be nearly a decade old but the pastor who delivered it is not backing away from its essence, only saying he would use different words now.
These are just weasel words. Like many of his ilk, in a time where there are laws against discrimination and hate speech, he wants to slide around the core issue.
They reach out with one hand and condemn with the other, asserting that with Jesus’ help can temptation be resisted.
That’s a practice that has led to much suffering among gay people torn between who they are and their faith.
Hiding behind their ideas of faith and Biblical belief, some religious leaders refuse to accept that homosexuality is a fact of life and has nothing to do with spirituality.
Those who have lined up behind Mr Thorburn, like Simon Kennedy in The Australian have used terms such as “traditional beliefs”, chillingly “prevailing cultural winds on sexuality”, as if the legalisation and acceptance of homosexuality is a passing fad, and “conservative” Christians.
Greg Sheridan, also in The Australian, calls Essendon anti-Christian, and the sacking represents a dark new phase in cultural intolerance. He even calls City on a Hill mainstream.
Janet Albrechtsen, yet again in The Australian, hysterically compares Australia to Afghanistan.
There are many Christians who will beg to differ. And people who have not just been discriminated against but prosecuted for their sexuality will find Sheridan’s claims risible.
Religious proscriptions have been used for thousands of years as a method of control, particularly over women, and some church leaders continue to cite Biblical sources to prevent women from participating fully in spiritual life.
The Catholic Church burned heretics, churches in the US supported slavery, the Dutch Reform Church in South Africa gave apartheid theological justification, and let’s not forget the role churches in Australia played in separating First Nation families and destroying their culture. Not to mention the Protestant-Catholic feuds last century.
Traditional belief does not necessarily mean it is good or acceptable. In fact, Jesus’ ministry was as much about taking on the hypocrisy and hollowness of religious strictures as it was about personal salvation.
These commentators conflate faith, a personal matter between an individual and whatever concept of God they adhere to, and religious organisation and human-made moral constructs that no longer reflect the realities of modern democratic life.
Much of Christianity has moved with the times, even if church leaders such as those in the Catholic Church and some in the Anglican Church cling to outdated and bigoted views, creating an inner crisis for many members.
For other religions such as Islam, much of which regrettably holds antiquated views on sex and women’s roles, the message should be the same. The freedom to practise your faith should not depend on the freedom to discriminate against and vilify people.
The controversy does highlight the inconsistency in discrimination law, which is more of a political fix than anything, and the continuing tension built into the legislation.
Legal minds are saying that Mr Thorburn has a clear case of discrimination because of his religious beliefs. But what do we do when those aspects of those beliefs are now outside of social norms and could inflict harm?
The Albanese Government is now coming under pressure to release its promised religious discrimination bill which will somehow have to balance the rights of people and organisations of faith and the rights of individuals.
It’s not going to be easy and expect politics to triumph, especially when the multicultural vote is at stake, and faith and culture can be hard to separate.
Essendon Football Club had to make a choice between its values of inclusiveness and non-discrimination and those that cannot accept that sexual orientation is not a moral and spiritual issue, and the potential harm they may cause.
It may have been done clumsily and Mr Thorburn may be the inclusive and loving person he says he is, despite what his church may espouse.
But for some to suggest that people of faith are no longer wanted in public life is just not true. It may be true that those who wish to continue expressing certain views will find it harder to be accepted.
That just means those ideas, like many before them, have had their time, and were never fundamental to faith in the first place.