Church leaders throughout the district have spoken of their shock at the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

The head of the Catholic Church, who is stepping down due to age and health reasons, is the first to give up the post in more than 600 years.

Father James Hawes, the Parish Priest at the Church of Immaculate Conception, Epping, said that he was stunned by the news.

He said: “I must say it came as a surprise, it was really quite unexpected.

“It is without precedent in this day and age.”

Speculation about who will take the post has already begun, with local priests saying that this is going to be an exciting time for Catholic people.

Father Hawes said: “This will be an interesting time for the Catholic Church, it is always is, seeing how the new Pope will shape up.

As countries all over the world are dealing with political and social changes, including gay marriage, it is an interesting time for the Catholic Church to find a new leader.

Andrew Hurley, Parish Priest at St Helens Catholic Church, Ongar, said that it is entirely possible for the next Pope to drive the Catholic Church into the modern world.

He said: “I would welcome more open thinking on things and I am now looking forward to the change.

"With each Pope comes the opportunity for major changes, although the church moves very slowly.

“Pope Benedict XVI is a very traditional man, perhaps now, we could see someone a little more modern.

“Whatever happens, I believe that it will work out in the best interests of the church.”