The head of the Church of Ireland has defended an Anglican decision to ‘punish’ the US Episcopal Church for backing same-sex marriage.

Christians reacted with shock last week as the Anglican Communion – the global conglomerate of churches headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury – voted overwhelmingly to sanction the US Episcopal Church for affirming same-sex marriage.

The US Episcopal Church has welcomed gay members for years, even appointing openly gay bishop Gene Robinson in 2003 – but provoked the wrath of hard-line and African churches within the Communion by its decision to embrace equal marriage.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is reported to have allowed the punishment to go ahead to appease hard-liners and prevent the Communion from entirely splitting.

But the head of the Church of Ireland, Archbishop of Armagh Richard Clarke, defended the decision while speaking to BBC Radio Ulster.

He said: “The language of the Primates Gathering and communiqué was not about sanctions but rather wanting to walk together and create safe distance in order to do so over the coming years.”

He added: “What I think I’d want to say about the statement is that people do need to read it very carefully rather than the headlines that some people have put on it.

“I’m not being cynical, but politically it has to be said that those who wanted massive sanctions – and we never used the word ‘sanctions’ – wanted to hype up what had happened…

“Those who wanted to, if you like, push – as they’re entitled to do – an agenda which is about gay marriage, I have to say wanted to say ‘look the Americans have been sanctioned, they’re being humiliated.

“The reality is they haven’t.”

The claim that there have been no sanctions is confusing, given the Episcopal Church was specifically banned from taking part in Anglican decision making bodies, and stripped of some voting rights.

Despite the claim there are no sanctions, the official Anglican statement very clearly states: “For a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

The statement also claims the Episcopal Church’s teachings “represent a fundamental departure from the faith” because they don’t respect “marriage as between a man and a woman” – and suggests that “mutual trust” has been broken.