Stephen Townsend

Deputy Head of Mission, British Embassy to the Holy See

Guest blogger for Nigel Baker

Part of UK in Holy See

1st August 2016 Holy See

Time of transition

Nigel Baker presents credentials to Benedict XVI (2011)
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HM Ambassador Nigel Baker presents his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI (September 2011)

“There can be only one” – not only the tag-line from the “Highlander” movies, but also the rules about Ambassadors accredited to each State. There can only be one official Ambassador in a country at a time.  So there is always a gap between one leaving and the next arriving – which is another opportunity for the Deputy Head of Mission to step into their shoes as Chargé d’Affaires a.i. (ad interim). Even once the new Ambassador arrives, they are not accredited until they have presented their credentials to the Head of State, which might take some time. I remember one Embassy where the newly-arrived Ambassador had not presented their credentials by the time of the Queen’s Birthday Party, so the Chargé had to formally greet the guests while the not-quite Ambassador was discreetly in the background.

The time between Ambassadors is always a busy one for the staff  of an Embassy, especially in a small operation.  Not only do we have to cover the work of the Ambassador, but there is usually redecoration work at their Residence, arranging lists of courtesy calls, checking what the arrangements and timings are for presenting credentials and preparing briefings. The new Ambassador also has to work their way around how the Holy See works and operates through its structure, and it is a key part of our job to be their guides and advisers. There is an advantage in the Ambassadors changing in the summer – the Holy See is quieter (never totally quiet with Pope Francis) and many people are on leave.

An Ambassadorial departure is usually tinged with sadness. We have worked with him or her for up to five years (in the case of Nigel, this is the second time after working together in Bolivia, so he is probably sick to the back teeth of the sight of me!), and have got used to their style. But as with any new boss, there is a keen sense of anticipation about the new Ambassador: how they operate, what is their style, what are their likes and dislikes. So we have to look firmly to the future.

HMA Holy See Nigel Baker bids farewell to thePope at the end of his ambassadorial mandate

So while we wish Nigel, Sasa and Ben a fond bon voyage, and arrivederci,  we are also looking forward to Sally Axworthy and her family arriving. There will be new challenges, but I am confident that the great team that we have in this Embassy will be able to surmount them.

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About Stephen Townsend

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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