Australia has recently experienced another situation where the conservative church’s approach to gender identity has seen it much criticised by the public and the media. In response, many christians complained of having their freedoms taken away.
Was this all avoidable? Who was right?
And most importantly, what lessons can we learn?
I am aware that some LGBTQI people may find this topic distressing, and may feel that straight people like me shouldn’t be making judgments about gender identity issues. If you feel this way, please feel free to not read this post. But I think straight people need to talk about these things if change is going to come, but of course we must be informed by, and sensitive to, our LGBTQI friends.
Footballers and business …..
For non-Aussies, here’s a quick rundown.
Yes, it was another football-related incident, though a different code of football than the one I reported over three years ago (Homophobia, Biblical truth and Israel Folau). Australians play four quite different codes of football, and this one concerned the Australian Football club, Essendon in Melbourne.
The club has been going through some difficulties recently. These apparently started in 2015 when a popular and successful coach quit over a drugs scandal. The side hasn’t played well since then. This year, after the resignation of the President, CEO and several Board members, and the sacking of the current coach, a comprehensive review of the club’s culture was undertaken.
One of the members of the review team was an Essendon supporter and former banking executive, Andrew Thorburn, and he was subsequently announced as the new CEO. The club felt his experience would ensure the club would flourish as a business enterprise. With a new President, Board, CEO and coach, the club looked forward to better days.
But the good vibes only lasted a day.
….. and homophobia and christians
As soon as the appointment was announced, commenators questioned the club’s judgment. Football clubs in all codes have become very sensitive to the need to be inclusive in today’s culture – taking stands against racism, sexism, domestic abuse and homophobia. But it hasn’t been without its problems.
In the different football code of Rugby League, there is a “Pride Round” each season where clubs wear special LGBTQI themed jerseys, to show solidarity with LGBTQI people and to promote inclusion. But this year 7 Pasifika players from the Manly club refused to wear the jersey because they said it was against their religion. They were much criticised for their stand but their coach accepted their decision. Whatever the reason, the club didn’t win another game, and the coach was sacked at the end of the season.
So Essendon too has an inclusion policy which it would naturally hope would be beneficial.
But Andrew Thorburn was also the chairperson of a conservative church in Melbourne with a defined stand against same sex marriage and abortion. Some remarks in a decade-old online sermon by the senior pastor particularly incensed critics.
Most prominent were comments by Premier Daniel Andrews (the head of the Victorian state government). Andrews said he had “no sympathy” for Mr Thorburn’s position because of “rampant homophobia” and the high suicide rate within the young LGBTIQA+ community. He described the church’s views as “intolerance”, “hatred” and “bigotry”.
Thorburn was widely accused of homophobia, and critics said his employment sent wrong messages because the church’s views were contrary to Essendon’s inclusion policy. He distanced himself from the pastor’s words (they were spoken long before he was a spokesperson for the church, though they were still on the website), but within a day he had resigned.
Predictably, some commentators such as journalist Peter Fitzsimons, hailed the outcome, but others felt the reaction was extreme.
The christian response
Thorburn later said he was troubled that a person’s employment could be threatened “due simply to faith” and suggested that the uproar over his appointment was “a dangerous idea, one that will only reduce tolerance for others and diversity of thought”.
Other christians took a similar line. Some of course are conservative christians who, under the influence of right wing politicians and commentators who use scare tactics to promote their cause, believe freedom of religion is under attack.
But even christian bloggers who I respect saw this incident as an attack on religion and freedom of speech, and likely to be detrimental to businesses and society. The church’s pastor allowed himself to be interviewed on morning TV and, I thought, quite blatantly ignored the questions he was asked, to try to present a better image. Christian and newspaper columnist Anthony Saegert claimed a “growing intolerance” towards religious people, and thought the TV interviewer didn’t allow the pastor to explain himself.
The Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne and an Essendon supporter said he would look for another club to support, implicitly criticising the Premier, a fellow Catholic.
Sowing and reaping
My feeling is that conservative christians and churches are reaping what they have sown. If they listen carefully to the criticisms they may learn some lessons in communication.
Firstly, it is surely important to consider if the church’s long-standing objection to same sex relations is fair and necessary. Understandably, many christians are reluctant to give ground to “the world”, but sometimes the world prods the church in ways that are necessary, and this may be one. It would be foolish not to at least think and pray about it.
I have considered ways the church and individual christians might move forward on this in Christians and gender.
My following comments relate specifically to those christans who feel unable to change their stance on same sex relationships. I believe there are more loving and sensitive ways they could respond to this issue and better ways to communicate.
1. Apologise for past mistakes
LGBTQI people have been treated badly by the church, and in many cases this continues. Christians and churches have often been insensitive, have excluded, have demonised and not welcomed queer people. Coming out of the closet has been traumatising for many, while staying closeted hasn’t been any better. Some have suicided because of how they felt the church treated them.
Admitting the awful truth and apologising publicly is surely a necessary first step.
2. Recognise the difference between orientation and behaviour
It is generally accepted that LGBTQI identity is mostly an innate orientation and not a choice. Many christians have known this for decades, but some still don’t. No-one should be discriminated against because of something over which they have no choice. (In fact we should be very careful about discriminating against anyone for any reason, but that’s a story for another day.)
3. Morality is personal unless it is a matter of law
Most of us live in pluralist societies where all sorts of different ethical views can exist side by side. If something is clearly harmful to others, it should be constrained by law. But otherwise, live and let live must be the rule. It is hard to see how most LGBTQI behaviours could be seen as harmful to others, so christians shouldn’t try to impose their views (whatever they may be) on others.
Christians in Australia have sadly missed this point. Several years ago the government conducted a survey to find the public’s view on making same sex marriage legal, and Australians voted strongly in favour. But conservative christians opposed the move. But on what grounds? Did they have demonstrable grounds to think same sex marriage would harm society? Or did they think it was right to impose their form of christian morality on the rest of our population?
This opposition may not have been homophobic as critics claimed, but it sometimes looked like it. And it made non-believers more critical of the church’s motives and care for others. A neutral and less public response to the same sex survey would have made issues like Andrew Thorburn’s appointment easier to discuss.
4. Recognise that being criticised isn’t necessarily an attack on free speech
Many christians paint this as an attack on free speech. But the church is free to express its views, just as others are entitled to criticise them. The issue here (as with Israel Folau) isn’t freedom of speech but commercial realities.
Football clubs are business enterprises supported by commercial sponsorships. Investors believe that the general public won’t support businesses and clubs which they see as not being inclusive. And so those representing the clubs need to be “on board” with the inclusive message if they want to be paid.
An example is a current Rexona Not Done Yet ad campaign, which aims to inspire people with disabilities or facing other societal barriers “to push beyond their self-doubts”. The campaign includes the story of a Aussie gay professional footballer (different code again!). Rexona presumably thinks this inclusiveness will benefit their brand as well as these segments of society.
Most jobs don’t have these public relations requirements, but some do, and sponsored professional sport is one of them. And Essendon club presumably believes it is hard to be a spokesperson for two organisations with quite different views. Andrew Thorburn was asked to give up one of the positions, and he resigned from the club position.
5. Learning how to communicate better
If conservative christians really are accepting of LGBTQI people as people, even if they disagree with their choices, they need to make this clearer by their actions and in their statements.
- Talk less about gender and sexuality, and focus more on other ethical questions such as wealth inequality, fair treatments of first nations people and refugees, and greater care for women in vulnerable situations.
- Especially stop telling peope outside the church (and inside it too) how to live their lives.
- Actively welcome LGBTQI people into churches and leadership if they want to be there.
- Listen to LGBTQI communities and be sensitive to their experiences and to the language we use.
If conservative christians did these things, they would be in a better position to explain their view, something along the lines of “we love, respect and welcome you and everyone else, but we have chosen to follow what we see as a christian ethic”. Live and let live.
Who is the victim here?
In many ways, Andrew Thorburn was a victim. He didn’t necessarily have homophobic views (apparently while in the banking industry he introduced inclusive policies). He was the target of a campaign that demonised him, perhaps unfairly, and he had little opportunity to defend himself.
But the church he represented held views that were not inclusive and were seen as homophobic. Had those views been reconsidered, and if not changed, at least expressed better (as above), more clearly and more sensitively, this situation may not have arisen. And if it did arise, Thorburn might have been in a better position to respond.
But as it is, Essendon football club may have lost an excellent manager plus some credibility, the christian faith has been dragged through the mud again, and LGBTQI people have been hurt again. Perhaps these are the real victims? But with some care this situation could possibly have had a better ending.