How would you describe your personal religious views and identity?
We were brought up in a tight knit community in the Upper Swansea Valley, where community was all important. Going to Chapel was part of our upbringing. A morning service, Sunday school and an evening service. As I grew up I would be going three times quite regularly, the Sunday School was a little bit more general as opposed to a sermon or a message. It was an independent chapel, it wasn’t highbrow or heavy. In attendance would be my friends and children of a similar age whom I would know, so it didn’t feel uncomfortable or that I was under too much duress! But at a young age I wasn’t quite sure what I was meant to understand about it. It was also where I first began to appreciate music. In essence it was an hour or so, all in Welsh. We were all Welsh speaking and most of the conversation was in Welsh, as I grew up it was part of my upbringing and important. And we all participated as children, we would learn some quotes from the Bible, my mother and my sister would teach me. Sometimes we recited them, sometimes we read them.
Now I left for school, this is a general thing, I went away to a public school in England when I was 16. So then I only came back periodically. There was now an expectation to go to church as part of the school, you would go to church on Sunday morning, it was an immediate change of ways in which religion would be portrayed of us: a) in English and b) through the eyes of church not chapel. So when I got back my participation in chapel would be a little less.
So I spoke to Maureen earlier last week in fact, whether or not I was religious, so I would say from that background I would still have………and short of saying I don’t know, I would lean towards saying yes I am religious. But I it would be fair to say that in latter in years I have not been to church. We moved also, a factor which I think not changed my mind, but changed my habits. (Interview interrupted).
So I had spent two years away at school, my parents put less strong emphasis. My father’s background, his mother was very religious, and probably the reason for that was that she lost her husband at a very young age. I think she go solace and strength from religion, but it would be fair to say she never forced it on us. But it had an adverse effect on my father, who also went to the Second World War. He questioned religion when what he saw taking place there, if there was a God why would this be allowed to happen kind of thing. So he was never really……and he never forced it on us. So because I became an international sportsman at 19, it also meant that my weekends were taken up……..I suppose that I found less and less time on a Sunday to go to chapel. And a few years later we moved from that area to where we are now. Maureen has kept up the chapel going. Sometimes I wish I had done that. I still have pleasure in going to chapel when I do, which isn’t that regular. Do I believe? I don’t know. Do I like to think I believe? Yes. I, we tried to make sure that the boys followed the same path. But I don’t feel guilty for not going, it’s just that I am grateful for the background I had and that we did go. I think that it has given us a platform from which I can conduct my thoughts in a way which is satisfying for me. I’m not over religious.
There are some things I have strong views on from my background, the way I was brought up. When I was in college I did physical education, but we have to take other subjects and I took religious instruction, so I did that. So I was very much as a young kid because of all this preparation we had to do, so I could quote quite a lot, I was aware without necessarily believing. I could quote like quoting Shakespeare. It’s like not wanting to be an actor but taking pleasure in Shakespeare, and believing the words.
And of course when we’re in trouble it is natural to pray, even in sport we think that God is on our side when we need him. And is that human failing? Some feel stronger than others. I used to enjoy going to chapel as well. What you’ve got to understand is that when you are young and listening to a preacher, an hour sounds like a long time. But back in those days a lot of our preachers were great orators and preachers, but often a message went over a young man’s head. But when I could to 11, 12, 13 and I was beginning to understand a bit better, we had a young preacher in when our old one retired, and for us youngsters he was a breath of fresh air. He liked sport, he could laugh and joke and always had a good message. We felt that we had a far better rapport than we had with the older one, although he was a lovely and generous man.
After I came back from the school I was there less, but the younger preacher brought a different view to his talk and religion and I was far more comfortable in understanding him and his message. It was basic principles, do unto others as you would wish others to do to you. It was more the way that life was conducted and the way it should be.
It was conducive and would help you to conduct yourself in a way that you would expect in a close knit community. In a small village of 3 or 4 thousand with its own identity, and the next village virtually adjoining it would have a slightly different identity. Now in the village we had a church, 3 or 4 chapels, I won’t say full but well supported. So there would be a sense of belonging and seen to be going. Kids went because they were expected to rather than because we wanted to. It did allow us to at least experience what it was all about.
Would you say that this country is a fairly equal and tolerant one with regard to religion?
I think it is relatively. It is very tolerant of different people’s views, extremely so. Whereas compared to other parts of the world you don’t have the choice or desire to let others have thoughts. There is always a danger of taking one exception or situation say in the Middle East or the Far East. I have travelled……usually to British…..part of the old Empire where religion has been fairly standardised. But I think that we are tolerant.
Maybe this was part of going away to Millfield School and the mixture there, lots of nationalities and religions and backgrounds without question. You had all extremes which is what the basis of the school is all about. And now they have all kinds of people who come together, and they help each other. When you think of where I came from with a scholarship from my mining village at 16, thrust into a melting pot of different people from all over the world, it was quick step forward. It was a fast track to take it all on board and be aware of it. It made me aware, it gave me first-hand information. It wasn’t like now when we have media and we are aware. At that time I met boys from Asia or Africa, I learnt about problems in their area that I would never have known otherwise. I quickly became aware that things were different in different places, and that things happened to individuals that you knew. I became aware that you had to be tolerant because certain people had strong views, I am fairly easy going.
Do you think that faith schools are a good or a bad thing?
Because of the background I had, I think that you are better to have a mixture and benefit from other people’s views. You have to be able to understand and compromise. One of the most difficult things for human beings is to understand each other. And there is a danger in religion of the extremist view. It’s alright having strong views and a belief, but quite often believing that you are right causes grief to other people.
Something which even today causes me concern, at a young age we went to tour South Africa at the time of Apartheid. I look back now and people say that we were selfish to do so, that it didn’t help the country, the people of South Africa. Yes…..as far as we are all concerned it is abhorrent. Even today I can’t work out whether we did the right or the wrong thing. I take strength from the fact that I think that we did the right thing. Why? Because I felt like in going, we made people around the world far more aware of it. Did it change people’s lives in the country as of that moment? Probably not. I’ve spoken to lots of black people living there at the time, and have asked them what they think and they have different views. Still on my conscience, I was young. All I wanted to do was to play sport at the highest level.
Today we are more aware because of media, the world has just become a glass case. So we’ve been subjected to that. Again, you often wonder if you had a stronger conviction. One or two of my friends didn’t go……but didn’t try to change our minds. Although I am comfortable with my decision in one say, it tugs at me. Millfield helped me by putting that doubt in my mind. I played with black players at Millfield, we were probably seven different nationalities in our rugby. I didn’t dismiss the issues. But if I was perfectly honest, the craving of wanting to play international sport outweighed my other views and thoughts.
What does help people to live together and understand each other?
You can say tolerance, but I think that you have got to have some experience and be aware and respect religion and views. I don’t agree with everything my wife says!
There’s also an old cliché, there is none as blind as those who will not see. If I had the answer to this, all of the problems in the world would be solved.
Prior to Millfield I had a teacher who taught me that nothing came from nothing. If I was to succeed I had to sacrifice a lot of things. People ask me why I achieved what I did in sport, sometimes I haven’t seen it but Maureen does, she says that I wanted it so badly that I could go and do it. My brother was an extremely talented sportsman too, but he would say if I get picked I will go and train. Whereas I would say that I will train so I got picked. I took things like that for granted. I was so driven and motivated that I wanted to succeed. As in all kids I wanted to play for my country, who doesn’t? But I was motivated to do it.
Is it important for you to vote?
Yes, having said that, I did vote, but I don’t really have a strong………….you’ll have to unscramble this. Against, a Socialist background, the whole country were virtually Socialist, everyone voted Labour. The South Wales coalfield was brought up on that. We did have one Communist in the village, and I did respect him for standing up and saying his belief even though he was ridiculed.
I came from this background where we all had a similar view more or less, we were told about our political heroes, Anuran Bevan……..we were brought up on a daily dosage of that, and rightly so. But in Millfield we would have dinner and the senior prefects, some of them were older than I was and the headmaster encouraged a good chat. And you became aware of other people’s views, their politics were completely opposite to mine, the majority of them were very wealthy.
The headmaster taught me a great lesson. At 11am we used to have a coffee break and there was 10 or 20 minutes between lessons. He was a Cambridge man, terrific sportsman, and I remember one day I had been at school…….it had happened quickly, my PE master in my village wrote to Millfield and got me in. One minute I was a big boy in a small village, suddenly I was a small fish in a big tank. I was having a coffee about 2 months about getting there and the headmaster came and asked how things were going, and I said fine. He said that I heard good things about you and asked how I was settling with the rest of the crowd. He suddenly stopped and said, I hope that you are not looking down on these guys because they can’t play rugby as well as you can. I was flabbergasted and said no, I had never thought of that. And before I could really think about it, he said, and I hope that they are not looking down at you because you are the son of a miner and they are millionaires. Before I could even think much longer he had gone, but he left me with the thought. He was that kind of clever man who left you to ponder.
That helped me create my own thought processes about where you stand with people. I wasn’t looking down on them and I wasn’t conscious of them looking down on me. The fact that I had never thought about it before probably tells me more than if I had thought of it.
Would you say that the Rule of Law is applied equally and fairly?
We were brought up where the policeman in your village would know you, the threat that he would tell your parents was enough. If you really deserved it, a little nudge here and there did you a bit of good rather than taking you to court. Justice was dished out in a different way. The thought that your parents would find out about something naughty was more than enough. We seem to have lost that. You do something wrong you are dragged before court, everyone wants to sue you. I am a little bit more dubious and less sure about whether justice is done.
But then we are far more aware of what is going on in the world, so there has to be more in the mixture of what is going right and wrong. Things are no longer shocking because we see so much more.
Is there anything which that you would like to add?
Since Mark asked me about this, I am always confined to a narrow corridor…..I sometimes forget what………if I come back to my upbringing and what international sport gave me. It was a worldly wise………experience that I’ve been able to form lots of opinions on. I based my judgement on what I see. You have to play within the rules of rugby or you get penalised. I quite often talk about the principles of team spirit and what it entails, which I think helps you to form opinions. Sport has helped me a lot and given me that experience to form opinions with.
Gareth Edwards was the son of a coal-miner and spent his early life in South Wales, where he distinguished himself in a wide range of sports, but particularly rugby. He won at scholarship to Millfield school and at the age of 19 began his international rugby career, winning a cap for Wales. He enjoyed a glittering career and is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest players of all time. After his playing career, he has been actively involved in a number of charitable causes, and was knighted in 2015 in recognition of his services to both sport and charity.