If you are going to watch religious leaders play high-stakes chess, it helps to know that the rules are quite different in various churches, denominations and other large religious institutions.
Why can't Catholics act more like Episcopalians? Well, there are different doctrines, different rules. Why are Global South believers, and folks in growing sections of the U.S. Sunbelt, so much more powerful in the United Methodist Church than in the Episcopal Church? There are different rules shaping the conventions that make the rules.
Long ago, I watched United Methodists elect new bishops while gathered at the historic Lake Junaluska Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was easy to watch the clergy engage in face-to-face negotiations about candidates while gathered under the giant trees surrounding the open-air sanctuary. Every now and then the politicking would pause, and everyone would bow their heads as a prayer was read for the Holy Spirit to guide the voting. When the prayer was over it was back to business.
Now, the Southern Baptist Convention game is played on several levels -- as journalists are learning during the debates about the future of the Rev. Paige Patterson, in the wake of debates about his statements about domestic abuse, divorce, women, etc.
You have the public game, of course, with activists on both sides doing that thing they do in their own media forums. Then you have the fact that -- as a seminary president -- Patterson ultimately answers to the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (click here and dig into the story). Those trustees are selected by the SBC, through its elected leaders. The SBC meets once a year as a convention to do business.
Note the word "convention." This is not a denomination or "Church." It is a complex association of congregations, with local associations, state conventions and then the big national SBC meetings once a year. There are actions the SBC can only take during the two days in June that it does business.
Rest assured that the most important meetings in this current affair are taking place behind closed doors and in conference calls. At that level, almost all flawed, oh-so-human institutions are alike. Every now and then, however, SBC leaders release public statements that are read like Russian tea leaves.
This brings me to that Baptist Press item at the end of this last week, with the headline: "Gaines addresses Patterson, racial diversity, SBC."