A. Theodore Eastman, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland from 1986 until he retired in 1994, whose moderate stances on social issues, including gay rights, made him a transitional figure within the church, died April 26 at a hospital in Arlington, Va. He was 89.
The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said a daughter, Anne Eastman Rosenbaum.
Bishop Eastman recognized that he presided at a time of difficulty for his church, noting in a 1993 interview that his leadership was marked by “fractious criticism, flagging confidence and fluctuating morale.”
He told the Baltimore Sun in 1994 that he viewed his role as being “a unifying force” in a diocese of more than 100 congregations and 23 schools in 10 counties in Western, Central and Southern Maryland. At the time, the Episcopal Church was struggling over internal debates about the acceptance of LGBT members and the ordination of gay and female priests, “so I felt tension of trying to hold people with different points of view together,” Bishop Eastman said.
The Very Rev. Gary Hall, the retired dean of Washington National Cathedral, said Bishop Eastman was considered part of the “movable middle” and “moderately progressive.”
“He was a guy who would let things happen but was not going to be in the forefront of change,” Hall said.
Bishop Eastman served as rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington from 1973 to 1982. Before his denomination allowed the ordination of female priests in 1976, Bishop Eastman had a female seminarian working on his staff.
As a result, several members left the church, “but not a significant number,” Bishop Eastman told The Washington Post in 1982. “There are some people in the congregation who are still uncomfortable with women clergy, but they’re hanging in there.”
After issuing a moratorium on the blessing of same-sex unions in 1992, Bishop Eastman was one of 53 Episcopal bishops who signed a 1994 statement asserting that gay relationships “are to be honored” by the church.
“He opened up the conversation of the Diocese of Maryland to this highly complex issue of human sexuality and the role of the church addressing the emerging issue,” said the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, a former bishop of the Diocese of Washington. “Ted was also a guy that was not somebody who would stand up on a soapbox . . . . He created that space and that environment for those conversations to begin.”
Albert Theodore Eastman was born Nov. 20, 1928, in San Mateo, Calif. His father was an advertising executive and his mother was a teacher.
He graduated in 1950 from Haverford College in Pennsylvania, then attended Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, receiving a bachelor of divinity degree in 1953. He was ordained a priest in 1954.
Early in his career, Bishop Eastman helped found the volunteer organization Overseas Mission Society, where he worked for 12 years and traveled to Tokyo, Cuba, Eastern Europe, Africa and Latin America, until the organization closed in 1968.
“If Christianity is going to speak to a culture,” he told The Post in 1982, “then it has to come out of the culture and not be imposed by people with a different set of values or different visions or different cultural heritage.”
He also was a chaplain at a California state prison in Soledad, lectured at an Episcopal seminary in Boston and served in churches in Tokyo, Mexico City and Allentown, Pa.
In retirement, Bishop Eastman served at Washington National Cathedral in various roles and was appointed vicar in 2003. He lived in Falls Church, Va.
Survivors include his wife of 64 years, the former Sarah Virginia Tice of Falls Church; three children, Rosenbaum of Savannah, Ga., Sarah Eastman Reks of Fayetteville, N.Y., and Andrew Tice Eastman of Falls Church; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.
In 1982, Bishop Eastman told The Post that he viewed his role as helping church members “think theologically about what they do.”
“People are not always altruistic,” he said, “and sometimes they have to be shoved and pushed and coerced a little to do what’s right.”