By Gordon Rogers.

VILLAGERS have been left baffled after their new vicar quit just weeks after being appointed.

The new vicar for the Wittenhams and Clifton Hampden, near Didcot, was due to have taken up the post of duty priest in the Bridge Group of parishes within the Dorchester Team.

However Mark Howarth has now quit the new job only a few weeks after he started.

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The Rev. Canon Howarth cited 'personal reasons' for his decision.

He was due to have been licensed at a ceremony in Dorchester Abbey in March by the Bishop of Dorchester the Rt. Rev Colin Fletcher but the service had to be postponed because of the coronavirus emergency.

Mr Howarth moved into the vicarage in High Street, Long Wittenham, two weeks before his licensing but has since moved out.

The house is expected to be re-let while the church seeks a replacement vicar.

Mr Howarth decided against taking up his post on the grounds that many of his family and friends were in Suffolk and he felt cut-off in Oxfordshire.

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He entered the church at Hereford in 1988 and his first post was vicar of Swaffams and Reach in Suffolk.

Later he moved to Ely and subsequently became the Bishop’s chaplain at Peterborough before moving to the Manchester diocese.

He has three children and three grandchildren, many of whom live in Suffolk.

The Rev David Haylett of Long Wittenham said: “The church is now back to square one.

"We are all disappointed with developments but respect Canon Rev Hayworth’s decision.

"The post won’t be advertised until the current lockdown eases and people can be interviewed for the post.”

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Mr Haylett said that once churches re-opened and services resumed - provided the current lockdown is lifted and he is allowed back into circulation - plans are in place for other members of the Dorchester clergy to take services.

In the meantime parishioners can join a service via a Zoom link from somewhere in the Dorchester Team most Sundays at 10.30am.

So far the services have attracted a virtual congregation of between 60 and 70. Single people and families have been taking part.

Mr Haylett added: “We are looking forward to being able to open both churches as soon as possible, although almost certainly with restrictions to begin with.

“We have a lovely new replacement carpet in St Mary's thanks to the wedding flower arrangers, June Woodage and Angela Humphris and a grant from the Mercy Ward Church Trust.”