Religion and Humanitarianism

Authored by: Jonathan Benthall

The Routledge Companion to Humanitarian Action

Print publication date:  March  2015
Online publication date:  March  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415844420
eBook ISBN: 9780203753422
Adobe ISBN: 9781135013936


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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 reflections. 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 efforts in Central Europe; and probably the majority of its current beneficiaries 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 influential 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, affirms 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 fluid than might appear.

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