A matter of freedom of speech

When Andrew Thorburn was appointed chief executive of Essendon Football Club in October, few predicted his tenure would be so brief. After just 24 hours in the job, Thorburn resigned following criticism of his role as chair of the conservative City on a Hill church, which is part of the Anglican Diocese.

The resulting fallout led to fierce public debate regarding freedom of religious belief and free speech. State and federal politicians, faith leaders and media personalities all provided commentary on the topic.

At the time, Thorburn told SEN radio that his involvement with the church related to governance.

“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.”

In a statement, he went on to say, “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.”

“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,” Mr Thorburn said.

It’s not the first time religion and sport have become entangled. You may recall the Israel Folau case in 2019, while earlier this year a number of Manly Sea Eagles’ players refused to wear a rainbow pride jersey launched as part of the club’s inclusivity initiative.

As the chief executive of the Diocese, I watched the Andrew Thorburn - Essendon football club saga with interest. Some of my own experiences have echoed this strange affair.

I recently attended a church conference in Melbourne where the journalist, Greg Sheridan, was guest speaker. Mr Sheridan has written a number of bestselling books on the place of Christianity in the world today. According to their author, the books are bestsellers because there are so few people writing on the subject.

In his speech that evening Mr Sheridan spoke of Andrew Thorburn and being a Christian in the public square today.

Some years ago, I was the chairman of the Board of Athletics NSW. This was a role I enjoyed immensely because, as a former athlete, I had the opportunity to give back to the sport I loved and that had given me many opportunities and friendships.

However, one of the things that surprised me when I came to the role was the reactions of some to having a Catholic, and a Catholic who worked for the Church, ‘in charge of the sport’. It seemed that there were a couple perspectives on this. Firstly, whilst Catholics had been on the board before me, the fact that they were Catholic was not obvious, other than perhaps by their Irish surnames. Apparently, only ‘good Protestants’ had been chairmen, and by way of that position also presidents of the sport. The mostly, grey-haired old men who attended AGMs seemed to prefer it that way.

I was rather surprised by that thinking. I had heard my father talking about the old days when there was a schism between Catholics and Masons in Cessnock where I grew up. The irony of this was that my Catholic grandfather had built many houses for Masons and our family had close friends who were from Masonic families.

Interestingly, my cousin is now very involved in the Mason fraternity, and the ideas of community and service run deep with both groups today.

But getting back to my athletics experience - the other school of thought on my position seemed to be that the crimes of the Catholic Church would rub off on the Athletics movement.

Ultimately, the role I held was an elected position and therefore that process decided whether I was on the board or not; there have been other Catholics, although not so obviously, holding the chairman's position since.

The thinking behind my experience and that of Andrew Thorburn intrigues me. If you are associated with a particular organisation, must you be the same as everyone else in that organisation and think the same way? And because you have held a certain view in the past is it assumed you will always hold it? Perhaps this is a form of punishment for an organisation’s failures to deliver to people who are associated with that organisation. But I don’t necessarily think that the reaction is about freedom of speech as people suggest. Instead, I believe it is really a form of scapegoating.

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Sean Scanlon

Sean Scanlon is the Chief Executive Officer of the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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