Vatican fears Anglican envoy

THE Vatican yesterday warned Britain against merging religious and diplomatic duties, when it selects its next ambassador to the Holy See from a range of candidates outside the Diplomatic Service.

A spokesman for the Vatican said that it had asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for “clarification” after Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said in a statement that he would break with tradition and consider appointing a non-professional diplomat as Britain’s next envoy.

In a little-noticed passage this week on the shake-up of the Diplomatic Service, Mr Straw said there was “no question” of closing Britain’s Embassy to the Vatican. Rome is in the unusual position of having two British embassies, one to Italy, headed by Sir Ivor Roberts, and the other to the Holy See, headed by Kathryn Colvin.

But he said that Britain’s interests could be maintained “if we widen the pool of potential candidates” when a successor to Mrs Colvin is sought next year. She took up her post in Rome in September 2002 and is due to return to London next September.

Joaquín Navarro-Valls, the Pope’s chief spokesman, said the Vatican was studying Mr Straw’s remarks. “The text is on my desk” he told The Times. “We do not yet know what it means.” He tried to dampen speculation in Rome and London that Britain might ask a Church of England cleric to do the job. “The Church is one thing and the Government is another. The two cannot be confused,” he said.

But sources close to the Foreign Office said that was the clear implication of the move.

“In the past there has been talk of appointing a businessman to posts with a strong emphasis on trade,” said a diplomatic source who served in Rome. “Using the same logic, if we are talking about the Holy See, then the next ambassador could be a cleric.”

Certainly the Foreign Office did not rule out the possibility.

A spokesman said: “The Vatican is an important and significant player. We are looking at how to maximise our impact. We want to widen the pool.”

A former British envoy to the Holy See said that Britain and the Vatican had “vital contacts” on sensitive questions such as Northern Ireland, which the Pope is to visit next year, the Balkans and the Middle East.

“The embassy does not represent the Anglican Church. If you put a cleric in the job it would cause confusion and potential trouble over questions such as the ordination of women. Church and government matters must be kept separate,” said the former envoy.

Dr Navarro-Valls said that it would not be the first time that a non-diplomat had been accredited to the Vatican. “The United States, for example, often sends businessmen to represent Washington,” he said. However, it would be the first time that Britain had done so in the case of the Vatican.

By custom the British ambassador to the Holy See is a non-Catholic, whereas his or her deputy is a Catholic.