chapter  23
Religion and humanitarianism
ByJonathan Benthall
Pages 11

In October 2010, a service of thanksgiving was held in London’s St Paul’s Cathedral to mark 90 years since the foundation of Save the Children Fund (SCF). Its president, Princess Anne, was a focus of attention as she had served with dedication in that capacity for 40 years. Invited to the service as a former committee member, I indulged in some ethnographic refl ections. Traditional humanitarian aid follows the structure of a folk narrative, whereby heroes are sent by donors to rescue benighted victims and on their successful return are congratulated by a princess: here in the cathedral, the princess herself was hailed as a divine blessing. The entire service was Anglican in form without deference to other confessions, although many of SCF’s supporters have been Catholic, starting with Pope Benedict XV in 1920, who in an encyclical letter commended its eff orts in Central Europe; and probably the majority of its current benefi ciaries belong to other religions, especially Islam. An outside observer would have formed the impression that SCF was grounded in the Church of England, of which the Queen, Princess Anne’s mother, is the head. SCF’s principal founder, the far-sighted Eglantyne Jebb, was certainly inspired by her Anglican faith. The St Paul’s service seemed to support one infl uential theory of religion (Durkheim’s): that when a ceremony is ostensibly addressed to God, it is actually a celebration of society itself. The promotional literature of SCF, now a global federation, affi rms that it is without religious orientation. This is just one example which suggests that the distinction between the religious and the secular is often more fl uid than might appear.