The Covenant is presented as a voluntary arrangement which will not affect the autonomy and governance of provinces, whether or not they sign it.
In reality, however, the intention is to treat non-signatories as less Anglican, or as some documents put it, 'second track'. In 2006 the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that the relationship between the two sets of provinces would be 'not unlike that between the Church of England and the Methodist Church', which seems to imply that those not signing would not be considered Anglicans at all!
This is confirmed by the Covenant text. The Introduction (§5) states that 'To covenant together is not intended to change the character of this Anglican expression of Christian faith', but whatever the intentions, the small print does. By signing, provinces will affirm that 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant, enable mutual recognition and communion' (§4.2.1). Until now, in the absence of any signed covenant, 'mutual recognition and communion' have applied to all Anglican provinces; it is only in the last few years that the campaigners against the North American provinces have undermined it. To sign the Covenant is therefore to side with the schismatics and affirm the innovation that 'mutual recognition and communion' depends on 'recognition of, and fidelity to, this Covenant'. Until now it has not depended on any such thing.
Similarly signatories will commit themselves to the view that the Covenant is 'foundational for the life of the Anglican Communion' (§4.1.2). To call it 'foundational' is a strong word, making quite clear that it is essential for membership of the Communion: in other words, that the signatories will no longer consider the non-signatories part of the Communion.
In any case there remains any doubt about the matter the power to exclude has already been pre-empted: in June 2010 the USA was excluded from an ecumenical committee on this basis, even though the Covenant is a long way from coming into force.
Of course provinces which refuse to sign will consider themselves just as Anglican as they are now. The Covenant will therefore institutionalise not only schism - by producing two distinct blocs of provinces, the signatories and the non-signatories - but in addition a built-in conflict between them as both will claim to be Anglican but the signatories will deny that the non-signatories are.
One way to appreciate what a huge difference the Covenant would make is to ask what difference it would have made if we already had it.
Over the centuries there have been many changes. Some have been changes of ethical judgement. Christianity no longer approves of slavery though it did for most of its history. It permits lending money at interest, which it forbade for most of its history. In the twentieth century the Church of England permitted contraception and divorce, both of which it had previously condemned, and supported the abolition of capital punishment. The current focus on gay and lesbian sexuality is one of many; in the light of history we can be sure that the concerns of Anglicans will move on to something else in the course of time.
In practice ethical attitudes change, and the Church's moral teaching changes too - often more slowly and carefully, but change it does. The process of change is always untidy. Whatever the resolutions of committees and the pronouncements of archbishops, the real driving force is changing attitudes in society at large. Personal experiences, stories of other people's personal experiences and reflection on how those experiences relate to one's inherited moral concepts all mix together to generate new considerations. Church authorities cannot control that process. To be open to God's guidance they need to be critical contributors to it: contributors because they bring the insights of the Christian tradition, critical because their conclusions are not predetermined in advance.
Similarly there have been many changes of doctrine. We no longer interpret the Bible allegorically, as the medievals did, or believe we are surrounded by spiritual beings influencing the world around us. If we did modern science would have been impossible. Anglicans today who affirm the Nicene Creed and the Thirty-Nine Articles often interpret them in ways very different from what the texts were originally intended to convey. Such changes are inevitable. Society moves on, errors are acknowledged and new insights are accepted.
There have also been many ecclesiastical changes. Churches change, for example, their orders of service, their regulations for ordaining priests, and the oaths priests are required to take at ordination. Recently many Anglican provinces have permitted women priests and bishops.
In all these cases - ethical, doctrinal and ecclesiastical - if the Covenant had been in force at the time the change was first proposed, it would have given real power to objectors to prevent the change. To do this, they would have needed to do two things, both of which would have been quite easy. Firstly, they would have needed to persuade an Anglican province to submit a formal objection to the Standing Committee. As each province determines its own decision-making system the means to do this varies, but in some cases it would simply be a matter of persuading the archbishop.
Secondly, the objecting province would need to persuade the Standing Committee that they cannot in all conscience remain in communion with a province which makes the change in question. In theory the Standing Committee might have rejected the objection and permitted the change; but the whole purpose of the Covenant is to provide a method for enforcing objections of this sort. Before any Anglican province had declared slavery immoral, the supporters of slavery had on their side not only the entire history of Christianity but also a huge range of biblical texts. The same would have applied in the case of capital punishment and lending money at interest.
In each case, if the Covenant had been in force when the change was first made, it would have been very easy for objectors to ensure that it was never made.
Only in Britain does Anglicanism date back to the Reformation.
The Church of England first separated itself from the Roman Catholic Church in the reign of Henry VIII. Henry did not turn it into a Protestant church - that did not begin until the reign of his son Edward VI - but he did make himself sole head of the English Church, thereby establishing that it did not owe allegiance to any international body. According to Article 37 of the Thirty-nine Articles, 'The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England'. If we do not grant jurisdiction to him, why should we grant it to archbishops in other parts of the world? The Covenant would in effect provide them with power to instruct us, just as it is designed to provide them with power to instruct the churches of the USA and Canada.
However the main reason why it would be the biggest change is that it would turn Anglicanism into a confessional church where church members are expected to believe what they are told. Covenant supporters have increasingly claimed that there is one permitted view and it is un-Anglican to dissent from it.
So far nearly all these claims have focused on one ethical issue, same-sex partnerships. However once the principle is accepted there is nothing to stop it being applied to other issues, and the Covenant is designed to do just this.
Provinces signing the Anglican Covenant will be agreeing that:
We, as Churches of the Anglican Communion, under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, solemnly covenant together in these following affirmations and commitments (Preamble)
In adopting the Covenant for itself, each Church recognises in the preceding sections 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 (§4.1.2).
Its proponents believe the 'bonds of affection which hold us together' (Introduction §5) have been judged and found broken. Once it is signed, all current and future member churches will be bound together by their assent to the Covenant's statement of faith and order. (Precisely what 'consistent' means in this context will be worked out in practice in the years to come.)
This would be to turn Anglicanism into a confessional denomination. Until now Anglicanism has usually allowed diversity of opinion on controversial issues, in the belief that we learn from each other in open dialogue and from our own and other people's experiences. Where there is genuine disagreement, therefore, it should be possible for all sides to debate the issues openly until consensus is reached. This is central to the theology of classic Anglicanism.
At the opposite extreme is a tradition which developed out of Puritanism. Many Reformation Puritans believed that the proper Christian response to any question is to look for the answer in the Bible. Once found, this 'biblical answer' is declared the only legitimate one for Christians. Churches based on this principle expect to have an official line on every contentious topic, and expect those with teaching authority to defend it. Those who dissent are considered 'unbiblical' or 'unsound'.
Thus the Puritan tradition sees disagreement as a threat to unity and is more inclined to expel dissidents. This is why they accuse liberals of trying to impose a revisionist agenda on the Church. It is this tradition which lies behind the claim - which astonishes most Anglicans - that one gay bishop, anywhere in the world, generates a crisis for the whole Anglican Communion.
Many Covenant supporters deny that they want a confessional church. This may be for a number of reasons. Some do want a confessional church, but are anxious to downplay the implications of the Covenant until Provinces have signed it. Others support the Covenant because they would like to tie up some loose ends in church law, or because they think a confessional church is a price worth paying to avoid schism. Others again have, without realising it, learned to accept the increasingly authoritarian mood.
Moreover the distinction between the two allows for fuzzy edges. Most church leaders have taught that there are some beliefs which all Anglicans should accept. If we ask what they are, with the exception of the Thirty-nine Articles Anglicans have been content with general affirmations of the Bible and the Creeds rather than listing precise doctrines. For example, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there was much emphasis on the principle that the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation, but nobody produced a list of what those things were. Recently there has been debate about whether or not same-sex partnerships are adiaphora, matters on which Christians can agree to disagree.
In practice this fuzziness has proved most valuable, allowing the core texts to be interpreted in different ways on different occasions. William Abraham's recent book Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology argues that there are two distinct concepts, which Christians have identified for so long that we rarely realise the difference. A canon is but a list: the canon of the Bible was first established as the list of books to be read in worship. Later, well after it had been established, it came to be interpreted as a criterion: that is, as a way of establishing the limits of acceptable Christian belief. It is possible for Christians to value its central documents as canon, without treating them as criteria to answer every question.
Those who prefer a confessional church demand more clarity. Some of the more conservative leaders in the Anglican Communion are used to treating Anglicanism as a confessional denomination, and are therefore frustrated that they had no means to sanction the church of the USA, nor to expel it, nor even to dissociate themselves formally from it. This seemed to them a significant weakness in global Anglicanism and they look to the Covenant to provide the remedy.
For those who do not see Anglicanism as a confessional denomination this problem does not arise: we expect to disagree with some Anglicans on some issues, but it does not stop us worshipping together with them.
A number of Primates' Meetings have been held to discuss the controversy.
The Primates' Meetings consist of the 38 heads of the Anglican provinces, mostly archbishops. It is neither a democratic nor a representative body. Some provinces are large, some small. In some the archbishops work in conjunction with elected committees, in others they are free to set their own policies. Given the large number of archbishops from countries where gay and lesbian sexuality is still strongly condemned - especially the large African contingent - it is not surprising that the majority of Primates disapproved of the North American actions.
What has generated much more speculation is why the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, now agrees with them. From the day his appointment to Canterbury was announced he was the target of intense personal hostility, focusing on his perceived support for gay and lesbian people.