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Nigel Baker

Ambassador to the Holy See (2011-2016)

Part of UK in Holy See

5th September 2012

Religion and Public Life

The British Ambassador to the Holy See Nigel Baker pictured with His Eminence Angelo Cardinal Sodano, Dean of The College of Cardinals.

I am often asked why we have an Embassy to the Holy See. Sometimes the question is an expression of curiosity. Occasionally, it is a reflection of hostility to the Catholic church, or religion in general. The subtext is often a sense that religion is somehow irrelevant to modern public life, and that therefore a British diplomat has better things to do than working to strengthen the relationship between the United Kingdom and the Holy See.

I have had a chance to reflect on this during the summer holiday period. And the evidence I have seen is quite the opposite. Although “religiosity” is, arguably, on the decline in Western Europe – something that will be addressed by the forthcoming Synod of Bishops here in Rome and the New Evangelization programme to be launched there –  WIN-Gallup recently published a poll survey showing that 59% of the world’s population still describes itself as “religious”. The Vatican’s own most recent statistics show that the total number of Catholics in the world remains at around 17.5% of the population. More specifically, even in secular Europe, we have seen just in the last month some remarkable manifestations of religious relevance to the public square:

  • The recent declaration on reconciliation between the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, taking steps that have proved all too difficult for elected politicians to make.
  • The extraordinary role of different Churches and faith leaders through the More than Gold initiative at the London Olympics and Paralympics. Who will forget the Church bells of Britain ringing out across the country to declare the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games?
  •  The blanket media coverage and massive public response in Italy to the death of Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, former Archbishop of Milan.

In my last posting, on Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, I noted his own contribution to British public life. Prime Minister David Cameron spoke eloquently of the role of Christians in public life last year. He mentioned the “vital role” of religious leaders and communities in Britain in defending the basic “values and morals which make Britain what it is today”. But perhaps the strongest manifestation of this relevance is in small things, at local level. According to the Evangelical Alliance in Britain, 58% of Evangelical Christians volunteer their time at least once a week, far above the national norm. I was struck while on holiday last month in Gaeta, south of Rome, by the local public support for religious processions celebrating the Ferragosto holiday, the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, even at the beach.

One may think this is a good thing. Or you may think that that religion should play less of a public role. But given the evidence, it is difficult to deny that the role of religious communities and believers in our public life is important, even essential, to the management of our societies. That, for me, is as good an argument as any for an Embassy to a global religious organisation representing over one billion people worldwide. And it is also no surprise that in the latest Cabinet reshuffle, we now have in Baroness Warsi a Minister in the dual role of Minister of State at the Foreign Office, and Minister for Faith and Communities.

3 comments on “Religion and Public Life

  1. Interesting how your government will not allow its own citizens to practice there faith by wearing a crucifix at work but this position within the see exists. When I became Celtic Orthodox I was told to always wear my Cross so am I allowed? This is how America was started. Will you never learn? I’m not spending any of my money on your country’s products any more and I am cancelling my trip to London during Christmas. Oops sorry, “The holidays” for you Aptly Vexed people.

    Maybe Ireland is the last bastion of the white mans soul in Europe.

    1. John, Your rambling comments are bitter and would indicate that it is you, rather than the British people, who are vexed.

      As for your final sentence “Maybe Ireland is the last bastion of the white man’s soul in Europe”; are you a racist? If you are, then you go against the very Christianity that you seem to espouse by your desire to wear the Cross.

  2. Thank you for your blog post. The Irish Catholic faithful are offended that our government closed our resident embassy Villa Spada which was bought in 1946 because of the value we placed on our links to the Holy See for more than 1500 years. Villa Spada was located next to San Pietro in Montorio where our Earls are buried who were given exile in Rome. Ambassador Walsh took the advice of Myron C. Taylor that Ireland has a very special place in the Catholic world and in Rome should have an embassy worthy of it. After all Ireland is credited with saving civilisation during the dark ages. In some respects the dark ages are upon us again having lost our economic sovereignty and the move to push an aggressive secular agenda. Solzhenitsyn knew the value of God when he said that the horrors of atheistic communism in Russia were because ‘men have forgotten God, that is why all this happened.’ The downgrading of our Embassy to non-resident status and the annexation of Villa Spada by the Irish Embassy to Italy are regressive steps and the closure does not reflect the will of the people. The UK must be given credit for recognising the importance of religion and Baroness Warsi is a wonderful role model.
    Best wishes

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About Nigel Baker

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as…

Nigel was British Ambassador to the Holy See from 2011-2016. He presented his Credentials to Pope Benedict XVI on 9 September 2011, after serving 8 years in Latin America, as Deputy Head of Mission in the British Embassy in Havana, Cuba (2003-6) and then as British Ambassador in La Paz, Bolivia (2007-11). In July 2016, Nigel finished his posting, and is currently back in London.

As the first British Ambassador to the Holy See ever to have a blog, Nigel provided a regular window on what the Embassy and the Ambassador does. The blogs covered a wide range of issues, from Royal and Ministerial visits to Diplomacy and Faith, freedom of religion, human trafficking and climate change.

More on Nigel’s career

Nigel was based in London between 1998 and 2003. He spent two years on European Union issues (for the UK 1998 EU Presidency and on European Security and Defence questions), before crossing St James’s Park to work for three years as The Assistant Private Secretary to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales. At St James’s Palace, Nigel worked on international issues, including the management of The Prince of Wales’s overseas visits and tours, on the Commonwealth, interfaith issues, the arts and international development.

Nigel spent much of the early part of his FCO career in Central Europe, after an initial stint as Desk Officer for the Maghreb countries in the Near East and North Africa department (1990-91). Between 1992 and 1996, Nigel served in the British embassies in Prague and Bratislava, the latter being created in 1993 after the peaceful division of Czechoslovakia into the separate Czech and Slovak Republics.

Nigel joined the FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) in September 1989. Between 1996 and 1998 he took a two year academic sabbatical to research and write about themes in 18th century European history, being based in Verona but also researching in Cambridge, Paris and Naples. The research followed from Nigel’s time as a student at Cambridge (1985-88) where he read history and was awarded a First Class Honours degree, followed by his MA in 1992.

Before joining the Foreign Office, Nigel worked briefly for the Conservative Research Department in London at the time of the 1989 European election campaign.

Nigel married Alexandra (Sasha) in 1997. They have one son, Benjamin, born in Bolivia in September 2008.

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