Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who's In Charge Here? Another one-sided historical anecdote.

The COA contrasts the situations of Channing and Parker regarding their anti-slavery stances, and the effects on their ministerial authority.  Channing, it is alleged, was prevented from making a strong anti-slavery stance by the economic interests of his congregation.   When he did make that stance, it caused his authority in his congregation to be challenged.

The Commission then turns to the case of Theodore Parker. "In contrast, his friend Theodore Parker led a thriving congregation in the same city while being an ardent and vocal abolitionist."

Some facts are missing in the story:

Channing's reticence about joining in the anti-slavery movement is a complex and somewhat mysterious.  It can be tied to his romantic racism and to his distrust of power, especially his own.  It is misleading to reduce it to his economic self-interest and the self-interest of his congregants. But, I do think that his congregation circumscribed his freedom of action in this case.  I think that it is true through UU history that the political and social stances of ministers are often limited by the congregations they serve.

However, the attempt to draw the contrast with Parker is also misleading.  Parker's greatest period of anti-slavery work was while he was leading the 28th Congregational Society of Boston, which was not a congregation in a traditional sense of the word.  It was more of an audience, who gathered to hear Parker preach.  It did not have the same powers of hiring and firing that congregations have, and misuse, to discipline their minister.  Parker could have such a prominent role because he did not have a congregation.

The lesson to be drawn from the contrast of Channing's and Parker's anti-slavery is really this: congregations limit the political freedom of ministers; Channing's congregation was one factor in Channing's weak abolitionism.  Parker's strong abolitionism was possible because he made himself independent of congregational oversight.

But the lesson implied by the COA's version of the story is this: A bad (wealthy) congregation stopped Channing from being a strong abolitionist.  Another good congregation supported Parker in being a strong abolitionist.

What makes me uncomfortable with the COA's telling of the tale is that it allows a happy, but false, ending.  "You see, the problem of ministerial authority is not so hard: Look, Parker made it work."

I think that the lesson is much harder and more disturbing: The one-sided way that we understand congregational polity has had the effect of diminishing the leadership of our ministry, inside the church and outside the church.  We can see this self-defeating trend at work within the lifetimes of the founding generation of Boston Unitarian ministers.  

2 comments:

Clyde Grubbs said...

Serve an established church and deal with power brokers like Federal Street's cotton merchants.


or go out and preach to the willing and fill up a hall.


Ralph Waldo Emerson called it lectures and it worked fine for him. Robert Bly called it men's groups.


What is so complex? The salary thing? The student loans. The MFC. Alas.

Peter Newport said...

It's worth mentioning, in this regard, that Parker's ride at the 28th Congregational Society began five years after he embraced transcendentalism in his Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity during which time his Boston colleagues effectively ended Parker's ministerial career by denying him access to their pulpits and refusing to publish his work in the theological journals of his time.

This lifts up the quite distinctly the power of the ministerium, and its authority, also as old as the Platform, to "admonish" colleagues whom they believed had fallen out of line; a function supplanted (unhappily, in my view)in our time by 25/24 and the MFC.

Even more interesting it will be to note, as we read along, how the COA itself reflects upon it own univocal power and authority, or that of 25/24, over and against that of the our contemporary association of ministers.