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.