The chair of City on a Hill, an evangelical church based in Melbourne, but with branches in Geelong, NSW and Queensland, has been forced to resign as CEO of the Essendon AFL club, one day after taking up the job.
Andrew Thorburn, former CEO of the National Australia Bank received hostile media coverage with the ABC, Age and Herald-Sun accusing the church of “homophobic and anti-abortion views” – to quote the ABC’s headline. Yet these are traditional Christian views.
At a press conference, Premier Daniel Andrews had condemned the appointment. “Firstly, the appointment of a CEO to a football club is a matter for the board of that football club,” he said. “Secondly, those views are absolutely appalling.
“I don’t support those views, that kind of intolerance, that kind of hatred, bigotry, is just wrong.
“Those sort of attitudes are simply wrong and to dress that up as anything other than bigotry is just obviously false.”
Before his exit Thorburn told sports radio station SEN “I don’t always agree with the church. I’m not a pastor. We should be seeking diversity,” he said.
“I’ve been a Christian for 20 years. CEO of two banks. I’ve never led with that. Never been an issue. Judge me on my words and actions as a leader.”
But it seems Thorburn given the choice has chosen to stand with the church and sacrifice the job.
Melbourne media has been checking out the City on a Hill sermon archive. They have discovered for example that the church takes a traditional view on abortion. Citing a 2018 sermon “We believe that we must be a voice for the voiceless, stand for the rights of the unborn baby and be pro-life.
“Human life begins at conception. All women and men have intrinsic value and worth as images of God. Abortion denies the voice of the most vulnerable.
And another saying “Whereas today we look back at (sic) sadness and disgust over concentration camps, future generations will look back with sadness at the legal murder of hundreds of thousands of human beings every day through medicine and in the name of freedom.”
These talks align with the views held by most evangelical, Catholic and Orthodox Christians.
Similarly, the church believes marriage is for men-and women couples only. Another sermon quoted says “The Bible never calls same-sex attraction a sin. Lust is a sin, sex outside of marriage is a sin, practising homosexuality is a sin, but same-sex attraction is not a sin.”
Founded as a church plant in the centre of Melbourne in 2007, City on a Hill has grown rapidly, to include campuses in Melbourne East, Melbourne West, Geelong, the Surf Coast, Wollongong, Brisbane and the Gold Coast. The Melbourne base is both an official Anglican Church and a member of the Acts 29 church planting movement.
Commenting before Thorburn left his post the evangelical Blogger Stephen McAlpine described the church. “It’s an orthodox and non-revisionist church that preaches the Bible, loves Jesus, encourages its people to love others, and holds to views that were not considered particularly radical all of five minutes ago. And now they’re in the firing line. Maybe as I long suspected, secularists don’t simply have a problem with the church but hey they kinda like Jesus (as some post-evangelicals tend to think), but in fact they actually have a problem with Jesus himself! The Jesus of the church that is. Not the Jesus of their own imagination, who tends to act and think just like they do.”
Baptist commenter Karl Faase said “There should be no illusion that the forced resignation of Andrew Thorburn from the role of CEO of Essendon football club because he was also chair of City on a Hill church is an appalling turn of events in Australian public life. This is bullying and intolerant behaviour led of Premier Andrews and backed up by the Victorian media and activist left.”
From the Essendon statement “As soon as the comments relating to a 2013 sermon from a pastor, at the City of the Hill church came to light this morning, we acted immediately to clarify the publicly espoused views on the organisation’s official website, which are in direct contradiction to our values as a Club.
‘Essendon is committed to providing an inclusive, diverse and a safe Club, where everyone is welcome and respected.
‘The Board made clear that, despite these not being views that Andrew Thorburn has expressed personally and that were also made prior to him taking up his role as Chairman, he couldn’t continue to serve in his dual roles at the Essendon Football Club and as Chairman of City on the Hill.
“The Board respects Andrew’s decision.”
From a statement by Thorburn: “Today 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. I was being required to compromise beyond a level that my conscience allowed. 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. Behaviour is the key. This is all a part of a tolerant and diverse society.
“Let me be clear – I love all people, and have always promoted and lived an inclusive, diverse, respectful and supportive workplace – where people are welcomed regardless of their culture, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation. I believe my record over a long period of time testifies to this.
“Despite my own leadership record, within hours of my appointment being announced the media and leaders of our community had spoken. They made it clear that my Christian faith and my association with a church are unacceptable in our culture if you wish to hold a leadership position in society.”
From a statement by Guy Mason of City on a Hill: “Dear friends,
“I wanted to take a moment to connect and share my personal thanks and appreciation for reaching out and offering your words of support, prayer, and encouragement.
“Today has been a difficult day. As many of you will know, Andrew Thorburn resigned his post as Essendon CEO, after his role with our church as Chair of our Movement Board was deemed a conflict with his job. You can read his statement in the link below.
“Andrew is a remarkable leader. He has been and continues to be, an incredible gift to our church. I am incredibly thankful for Andrew and his courage, humility, and love. He is a man of great character, and I am inspired by his conviction and integrity. It is these very character traits that would have made him a great success at Essendon.
“Despite media grabs and comments from our Premier, City on a Hill has always been about Jesus. Knowing Jesus and making Jesus known is the heartbeat of our church community.
“Jesus loves all people and is the author of life. He invites all people to experience his love and walk in his life.
“It is this life and love that guides our church which today welcomes hundreds of people of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds.
“As someone who wasn’t raised going to church, I’ve been transformed by and committed to the life and love of Jesus.
“It grieves me when this message is lost, misrepresented, or overshadowed causing pain and hurt. I’m committed as ever to sharing Jesus’ love with all people in all places and at all times.
“I’m thankful to God for the way that he continues to be merciful to our church, and for how the church He has gathered makes a wonderful contribution to our community, shining the Light of Christ.”