Dr. Alfred Byron Starratt, the retired rector of a downtown Episcopal church whose liberal preaching attracted a devoted congregation, died of complications from Parkinson's disease Wednesday in a Penobscot, Maine, nursing home. He was 91.
In his 30 years at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Mount Vernon, Dr. Starratt had a provocative weekly radio broadcast and was active politically in civil rights issues.
"Shortly before he became rector, Emmanuel Church had been considering closing its doors," said his daughter, Penny Starratt Duffy of Rochester, Minn. "He reinvigorated the church with a liberal Christian message inspired by love and guided by reason. It spoke to many disaffected churchgoers as well as to regular congregants, and the congregation swelled to over 700 people."
She called her father a "compelling speaker and brilliant writer and scholar." He published his sermons in The Pelican, a church publication.
"Being a liberal for him was a badge of honor," said the Rev. Frederick J. Hanna, who was his associate for 11 years and is now a retired Episcopal priest. "He wasn't afraid to take on the sacred cows."
"He rescued people from a dead religion, a religion that no longer spoke to them," said his wife of 19 years, the former Katrin Rittler.
While rector of Emmanuel Church from 1955 to 1985, Dr. Starratt held weekly adult classes in theology and philosophy, was on the national boards of Conscientious Objectors and Planned Parenthood and often spoke out on civil rights issues.
"As a child, he had a mystical experience in which he saw everything in the world as luminous," said a 1979 Sun article about him and one his books.
"The world itself was pulsing with a steady rhythm that appeared to me to be the beating of some gigantic heart, as if it were the life-throb of the self of the universe," Dr. Starratt wrote.
Dr. Starratt once said, "The trouble with religious people is that they act as if the only people with ideas lived in the past, as if, when you enter a church, you have to check your brains at the door."
He went on to say in the 1979 Sun interview that he couldn't be a Christian if religion were to be "embalmed in printer's ink between the covers of a book."
Born in Quincy, Mass., Dr. Starratt graduated from Boston University in 1939 and received a divinity degree at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass., and was ordained an Episcopal minister in 1942. He was rector of St. Anne's Episcopal Church in Lincoln, Mass., and went to central China as part of the Anglican mission in Wuhan, where he served as associate professor of religion at Huachung University.
He escaped from China in 1949 during the Communist Revolution and returned to Stockbridge, Mass., where he was rector of St. Paul's Church. After receiving a doctorate in philosophy and theology from Harvard University, he was rector of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Gambier, Ohio, where he was college chaplain and associate religion professor at Kenyon College.
Among other publications, Dr. Starratt wrote The Real God (Westminster Press, 1965) and Myself, Yourself, and the Self of the Universe (Stemmer House Press, 1979).
In 1996, he moved to Penobscot, where he continued to write and publish a twice-monthly newsletter on spiritual issues called The Walrus. He last preached as a guest at a Castine, Maine, Unitarian church several years ago.
"His writings continued to be an inspiration to a great many people," his wife said. "He continued to be involved in liberal politics and theology until the last couple months of his life."
She and he had cruised from the Chesapeake to Bar Harbor, Maine, in a sailboat for many years. He had been a racing sailor and won the Nova Scotia Bluenose Championship in 1966 in his boat Pecusa, named for Protestant Episcopal Church United States of America.
Plans for a memorial service are incomplete.
In addition to his wife and daughter, survivors include another daughter, Polly Starratt Lemire of Santa Rosa, Calif.; five grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Patricia Elizabeth Starratt, died in 2003. His 48-year marriage to the former Anna L. Mazur ended in divorce.