The Covenant text repeatedly denies any subordination of provincial autonomy to a central authority:
'Such mutual commitment does not represent submission to any external ecclesiastical jurisdiction' (§4.1.3).
Nevertheless critics argue that it does indeed centralise authority and power.
Section 4 and relational consequences
Because the text denies any centralisation of power it does not propose to intervene in the internal affairs of provinces. The 'relational consequences' the Standing Committee would recommend would only consist of excluding provinces from some or all of the Communion's international structures.
This may seem unimportant. However the fundamental aim of the Covenant, according to its supporters, is that it will provide a means to resolve conflict. When we ask how it will achieve this aim, it turns out that, apart from making one last attempt to negotiate a settlement, its only method is this threat to exclude.
Exclusion would create a two-tier Communion. Provinces which sign the Covenant and accept Standing Committee recommendations will be eligible for membership of international structures. Provinces which sign but dissent from a recommendation may not be eligible. The situation regarding provinces which decline to sign is not discussed in the text. Currently most Covenant supporters say they are still hoping all provinces will sign, though Fulcrum comments that 'Although not signing does not mean automatic exclusion there may develop some institutional expression of two levels of commitment to life in communion.' This seems most likely; in effect non-signatories would be treated much the same as dissenting signatories. (Otherwise the central authorities would have to include non-signatories while at the same time excluding signatories who dissent from a recommendation.)
This creation of a two-tier Communion is a feature recognised by the Covenant's supporters, such as the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as its opponents. Some supporters welcome it as a way to draw a clear line between the North American provinces and others. Others believe there is a strong chance that all provinces will sign the Covenant and accept Standing Committee recommendations, in which case there would be no 'second tier' churches. Nevertheless, even if this were the outcome, it is clear that power would have shifted; the provinces would retain control over their internal affairs, but a central authority would have new powers to promote obedient provinces and demote dissenting ones.
Sections 1-3 and the nature of Anglicanism
Although the Covenant text denies any subordination of provincial autonomy, it contains texts which suggest otherwise. §4.1.2 states that
In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections [Sections 1-3] a statement of faith, mission and interdependence of life which is consistent with its own life and with the doctrine and practice of the Christian faith as it has received them. It recognises these elements as foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion and therefore for the relationships among the covenanting Churches.
Thus Sections 1-3 would become 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion.' The Communion has never before had any such foundational document. By assenting to this statement, churches would in effect be affirming that Anglicanism is what the Covenant says it is.
This is not how most current proponents of the Covenant intend it to be interpreted. However, if the Covenant comes into force their intentions will no longer be relevant. What will count will be how the text is interpreted by those who make use of its provisions, and if conflicting interpretations lead to litigation (as seems almost certain), the authoritative interpretations will be established by courts, not by the Covenant's current proponents.
Precedents abound. Especially in the USA, campaigners have been encouraging parishes to declare that they cannot in all conscience accept the ministry of their bishop, simply because of the bishops's tolerant views on same-sex partnerships. There is little reason to suppose that such campaigns would fail to use the new powers the Covenant would give them. Furthermore §3.2.5 would give them the benefit of the doubt by putting the onus on churches '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'. This clause puts the onus on churches to avoid doing anything to which the litigious might object. Even the fear of Standing Committee recommendations, let alone their imposition, would curtail freedom of action.
Although the Covenant's main concern is with churches at a provincial level, it would inevitably affect churches at a more local level too. Once the Standing Committee has decreed that a particular action is 'incompatible with the Covenant' it will not be sufficient for a province to abstain from it. If a diocese or parish performs the forbidden act the leadership of the province will inevitably get sucked into the debate.