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Retiring bishop believes course is set for successor


Maryland Episcopal Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, who retired yesterday, has given leadership to a sometimes fractious church. Its conservative and liberal wings have been at odds on theological and social issues such as ordination of women, rights of homosexuals and mission priorities.

The California native, 65, moved to Baltimore from Washington in 1982 when he was elected coadjutor -- or assistant bishop -- of Maryland Episcopalians. He has headed the diocese since 1986.

This week, he begins a part-time assignment as coordinator of the College for Bishops, a program of graduate study being developed at New York's General Theological Seminary to provide practical training for men and women during their first three years as bishops of the Episcopal Church.

He and his wife, Sarah, plan to move in April to McLean, Va., from Clover Hill, the bishop's residence in Baltimore's Guilford // section near the Cathedral of the Incarnation. A diocesan search committee is being formed to nominate his successor.

Q: Is there much need for the study program for new bishops that you will be coordinating?

A: Parish clergy go to seminary for three years to prepare for their calling and receive a lot of in-service training. Even permanent deacons have a four-year formation program.

But nothing is done for bishops. You elect them and -- wham! -- they're on the job, trying to learn to fly the airplane while still constructing it. So this, I think, is a real step forward. I'm real excited about it.

Q: What advice do you have for your successor?

A: My main point would be: Remember, dear sister or brother, that the Lord Jesus Christ is in charge of this church. He will not let you down or let the diocese down if you keep open and encourage people to keep open to him.

Secondly, there is a tremendously positive heritage here, a great momentum of faith and good will. Don't let a few hecklers distract you from the main thrust of this diocese, which began 300 years ago and continues in a recognizable form.

The third thing I would say is, I'm not going to call you, but feel free to pick up the phone and call me when you can't stand it anymore [laughter] and you need an answer to a question I might be able to help with.

Q: Looking back on your tenure as bishop, is there anything you wish you had done differently?

A: I think the trends we have established are really in the right direction. We have tried to deal with the major societal issues such as racism, the homeless, the hungry, and we are trying to deal with internal church issues that have to do with who is ordained, with what is the kernel, the essence, of the Christian faith.

I think we have addressed all those issues externally and internally as directly as we knew how. But those stories are not finished. The next bishop of Maryland may function in a different way than I have, and bring more fruit out of those ventures.

Q: Describe some high and low points.

A: Clearly, a high point was the Cross-Roads project, which raised more money in this diocese for the mission of the church than we ever had before. Half went to facilities, such as our new Diocesan Center, and half went to endow programs of ministry to our own people and in the world. While we didn't quite make our goal, we did raise about $8 million.

The low points came when we were judgmental and angry with one another within the internal life of the diocese. That's happened over several issues. My view of the job of bishop is to be a unifying force, so I felt the tension of trying to hold people with different points of view together.

Q: In 1992, a service at Bolton Hill's Memorial Episcopal Church blessed the union of two lesbians and set off one of the bitterest of the theological debates. Have relations between diocesan liberals and conservatives improved?

A: We have been going through a period of more calm, partly due to the fact that I was retiring and people wanted to make my last months here a cordial time. Some of those issues are being dealt with in smaller groups, more directly than at a diocesan convention, for example.

We are continuing our study of human sexuality and more people are being drawn into it at the parish level, trying to learn what the spirit of God is saying to us about that reality.

One point I would make in terms of sexual ethics is that same-sex individuals in committed relationships ought to adhere the same moral standards as required of heterosexual people in relationships with one another.

Q: Do you have a message for the factions in such disputes?

A: One is, keep talking to one another. It's a terrible mistake in the Christian community to isolate ourselves so that we are not in communication with each other because we have disagreements, and that's happening to a degree. I regret that.

Nothing will be effective in terms of the Christian Gospel making an impact on society if we can't have that love and respect for one another in our internal relationships in the church.

Q: A national leader of the Episcopal Church's conservative wing, the Rev. Samuel Edwards, said recently about a theological dispute in Kansas, "The real thing at issue here is whether the community commands a higher loyalty than the truth."

A: If I understand what Sam Edwards is saying -- and I know him personally -- it's that a sort of crystallized truth is unyielding and inflexible and there forever.

What he and others think is happening is that the church is re-interpreting that truth in a way that's uncomfortable. But my feeling is that God is a living God whose revelation continues. The church's calling is to try to be in tune as faithfully as we can, getting rid of our own personal agendas, trying to listen to what the spirit of God is saying to us, so that the truth takes on new meaning.

The truth doesn't change, but our perception of the truth changes.

Q: You have been active in theological talks between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. What is the present state of ecumenical relations?

A: The weather changes as the years go by, and the ecumenical weather is a little chilly right now, largely at the official, higher levels.

At the local level, the weather is really quite sultry. Grass-roots Christians can get together in thanksgiving for one another, respecting one another's traditions, working together on the things we can work together on.

If the hierarchs would pay more attention to where people are at the grass roots, there might be an absence of chill at the top.

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