The full text of the Anglican Covenant contains a brief preamble and four sections:
Section 1 affirms basic Anglican beliefs and commitments and Section 2 commits churches to shared mission and service. Section 3 establishes the authority of the four Instruments of Communion. These are the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conferences of bishops, The Anglican Consultative Council (made up of representatives of the provinces) and the Primates' Meetings. It then focuses on how to keep the Communion united. Churches must 'have regard for the common good of the Communion in the exercise of its autonomy', 'respect the constitutional autonomy of all of the Churches', 'spend time with openness and patience in matters of theological debate and reflection', 'seek a shared mind with other Churches', 'participate in mediated conversations', 'act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion', 'uphold the highest degree of communion possible' and 'uphold the highest degree of communion possible' at times of conflict.
It is Section 4, the process for conflict resolution, which is the controversial part. When a 'shared mind' is not attained the matter is referred to the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion. This is an international body consisting partly of primates and partly of members of the Anglican Consultative Council. About the Standing Committee.
The Standing Committee is to attempt to negotiate agreement and if this fails, request a church to defer the relevant action. If this too fails it is to recommend 'relational consequences which flow from an action incompatible with the Covenant'. A 'relational consequence' would characteristically be to exclude a province from an international function (as has already been done in anticipation of the Covenant). A province's bishops might be excluded from Lambeth Conferences. A list of possible actions was published in the 2008 Lambeth Commentary (see page 25).
In effect this would establish a two-tier Communion, with inferior status assigned to churches which either do not sign the Covenant, or do sign it but then reject a Standing Committee 'recommendation'. Such a two-tier Communion would reflect the original motive for having a Covenant. Others, however, are concerned that their own church might one day suffer the same treatment, perhaps due to a controversy which has not yet arisen.
There has been much less controversy about Sections 1-3. As a description of Anglicanism, some have found them satisfactory but others have not. We should note that even if Sections 1-3 are acceptable as a good description of Anglicanism, the Covenant would turn them into a criterion of Anglicanism; the Covenant would commit future generations to agreeing with them.
Many of the Covenant's first supporters hoped for a document which would clearly penalise the North American provinces for their tolerance of same-sex partnerships.
There was much talk of obliging them to 'repent' or face exclusion from the Communion. Early drafts of the Covenant proposed stronger sanctions against dissident churches. However they were criticized for being too punitive, and it became clear that this approach would not gain sufficient support. The final text is therefore careful to avoid punitive language. Nevertheless critics argue that its processes would be punitive in practice.
Once the Covenant was in force, each time an objection was submitted the Standing Committee would have the task of making a recommendation. Since the process would only be invoked at times of controversy it is inevitable that one church or the other would disagree with the recommendation. It would then be faced with a choice: either it accepted the Standing Committee's judgement or it should expect to face 'relational consequences'.
Exclusion from international functions does seem like a punishment. Covenant defenders argue that the purpose of the exclusions is to ensure that the international structures are only staffed by those who themselves agree with Anglican teaching. So argues, for example, Archbishop Rowan Williams. Clearly this defence cannot convince all. Whatever the issue at stake, the disappointed would have good reason to believe that their church was being punished for the crime of believing something that other Anglicans, in other parts of the world, have suddenly decreed contrary to Anglican teaching.
One of the common temptations of the powerful is to underrate how much they are oppressing others.
At present each province has its own system for considering new proposals. In the Church of England, General Synod openly debates them and votes on them.
The Covenant would oblige provinces
to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission (§3.2.5).
This means that the mere possibility of controversy would be enough to caution the decision-makers against any new proposal. To make matters worse the criteria are hopelessly vague.
It may be easy enough to establish the substance of a controversy, though the Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion is left to decide whether any given substance merits intervention.
Extent may be measurable, but no figures are given. Will a development be forbidden if a thousand Anglicans object to it? Or a million? The matter is again left to the Standing Committee.
Intensity of course is not measurable at all. Even if it were, there is no way of deciding that a hundred people feeling intensely upset about something counts for more, or less, than a thousand who think that on balance it is a good idea.
To be realistic, these criteria are not criteria at all. They are an open invitation to the Standing Committee to see what they think. Once this is recognised, we can see that they are also an open invitation to dedicated pressure groups to mount their campaigns against new proposals, using the mass media to maximise the appearance of the opposition's 'intensity' and 'extent'.
Those who are unfamiliar with the state of church politics may think it most unlikely that Anglicans would abuse their Covenant rights in such ways. On the contrary, however, it is precisely the intention to use it like this - in the first instance against the North American provinces - which makes supporters want it.
In the USA many parishes have claimed that they cannot in all conscience accept the authority of their bishop, when the only problem is that they object to a bishop who does not condemn same-sex partnerships. Some parishes and dioceses in the USA have withdrawn from the Anglican church there, and there have already been a number of court cases over ownership of property.
This does not of course prove that they would use the Covenant in a similar way to get their way on other issues, but the Covenant is designed to make the option available.