Bishop A. Theodore Eastman, who has headed the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland since the beginning of 1986, announced in letters dated Thursday that he will retire at the end of January.
Admired by many Episcopalians locally and nationally but harshly criticized in recent months by a small, vocal group of Baltimore laymen, he said he had told close associates almost a year ago that he intended to retire in early 1994. He will turn 65 on Nov. 20.
He and his wife, Sarah, who were residents of Washington for 10 years while he was rector of St. Alban's Church there, have purchased a house in the Washington suburb of McLean, Va. The parents of three grown children, they also own a vacation home in Hedgesville, W.Va.
"God has blessed me with excellent health, abundant energy, a positive attitude toward life and a hopeful sense of expectancy about the future of the church," the California native said in his announcement to the diocese. "I look forward to new ways of serving the mission of our Lord, though clearly at a less demanding pace."
He was out of town for the week end and not immediately available for additional comment, but a spokesman said that after his retirement Bishop Eastman expects to be given special assignments by Presiding Bishop Edmond L. Browning, whose office is in New York.
The eight-member Standing Committee, highest-level decision-makers under Bishop Eastman, told the Maryland parishes in a separate letter, "Now that Ted's retirement date has been fixed, our diocese must prepare to begin a period, perhaps as much as two years, in which we will have an opportunity to select a new leader."
Until the consecration of a successor, Bishop Eastman's duties will be divided between the Standing Committee and Suffragan Bishop Charles A. Longest. The latter was elected in 1989 to work with the head of the diocese following Bishop Eastman's sudden firing of his popular assistant of 2 1/2 years, Bishop Barry Valentine.
That dismissal in June 1988, blamed by Bishop Eastman on "fundamental disagreements on policy matters and leadership styles," was the cause of considerable tension among Episcopal clergy and lay people.
Bishop Eastman's only acknowledgment of this in the announcement of his retirement was the description of his years in the Maryland diocese, the first three as coadjutor under Bishop David K. Leighton Sr., as "exciting, creative and sometimes stressful."
Other symptoms of the stress were:
* The initial failure to reach goals of an ambitious fund-raising effort called Cross-Roads and the consequent need in 1990 to borrow a large part of the $4.13 million construction cost of new diocesan offices on University Parkway.
* The Baltimore Declaration issued in 1991 by six priests, pointing to what they claimed was abandonment of essential truths of Christianity by Episcopal Church leaders, including Bishop Eastman.
* Last year's controversy over the blessing of the union of two avowed lesbians in a ceremony in Memorial Episcopal Church, Bolton Hill.
A new organization of lay people calling itself Concerned Episcopalians accused Bishop Eastman of "evasiveness" in connection with that ceremony.
In the announcement concerning his retirement, Bishop Eastman said the new Diocesan Center built on University Parkway "exceeded our expectations," and he told the 60,000 Episcopalians under his charge that he felt "positive about the ministry we have accomplished together," including the Cross-Roads funds raised for various projects.
"In the months ahead, I will have more to say about the ministry we continue to share," he said. "Meanwhile, I thank God for the good that has been wrought in us these past 11 years, through the power of the Holy Spirit."