Words by Jobe Baker-Sullivan / Words by Ed King
Rev. Emma Sykes is the vicar for St Barnabas Church, Erdington – the Anglican Church in the heart of Erdington High Street.
Originally from Wiltshire, Emma is familiar to Birmingham, previously working for local charities empowering young people, homeless charities, and for UK Youth Parliament. She was ordained in Birmingham in 2008 and, as part of her religious training, served as curate of St Martin in the Bull Ring.
Emma was announced as vicar of St Barnabas Erdington one week before the COVID-19 lockdown came into force on March 23rd. Like most people in the UK at that time she had to work remotely, and the Church of England had a rather unorthodox method of licencing her as incumbent of the church.
“I was licensed via Zoom. We had a simple service, with the church wardens there, Bishop Ann of Aston, with some prayers, all over Zoom. A very unusual start to the job.”
Emma confidently launched into her spiritual leadership embracing remote working. “Straight away I started to do online video reflections and prayer that would go out every Sunday. I couldn’t access the church building at all, so I would do these from home.”
St Barnabas Church is now open with regular holy communion services on a Sunday, as well as operating a live stream for people shielding, and is open for private prayer during the week. The service includes live church organ, although Emma bemoans the current government guidelines that “we’re not allowed to sing at the moment. It’s frustrating for all of us!”
As well as leading the church’s rich spiritual life, Emma is in charge of the business side of the busy St Barnabas Church Centre – which includes the Harbour Café and conference rooms. Emma’s first few weeks in post consisted of “sorting out finances, getting up to speed with furloughing, how to reopen as a café.”
Now measures have eased, Emma is working on other plans to help her flock in Erdington. “Our café is well used, but I want to reshape it properly into a community café.” She wants to encourage “different agencies to use the café,” especially those helping with problems of “drug abuse, domestic violence and homelessness.”
Whilst living not too far away in Boldmere, Sutton Coldfield, Emma notes that she’s “really enjoyed getting to know Erdington. Especially the community aspect. I love all the energy for the area, the passion for the area, it’s great to be involved in that.” She has been working closely with other church leaders in the Greater Erdington Partners group.
The Grade II listed building of St Barnabas has been a place of worship since 1824, although was severely damaged in a fire in 2007. Emma sings the praises of the previous vicar, Rev. Freda Evans, who left the parish in January 2018 and oversaw the rebuilding of the church.
Emma was impressed with “the sense of light, space and sanctuary. You get the sense that it is a safe harbour,” – all of the Church’s stained glass windows and roof were destroyed, with only the outer walls and the bell tower remaining. “I love the sense of continuity” in the church architecture, tells Emma, “honouring the old but bringing in the new.”
One of Emma’s current church projects is tackling the unkempt churchyard, which includes the graveyard. “I was very aware when I arrived that the church yard needs regenerating. We have a lot of antisocial behaviour in the church yard, which has been compounded by lockdown.” She wants to turn the churchyard into a “peaceful place where people can come and reflect and sit in God’s creation,” as well as “honour the memory of those who have died.”
The church is in the process of setting up the ‘Friends of St Barnabas Churchyard’, a fully constituted group consisting of people from the Erdington Historical Society, councillors and local police, to map out the churchyard graves – including war graves and commonwealth graves.
“We’re waiting to hear more on the 5 million pound regeneration fund, as that will affect what we can do.”
Rev. Emma Sykes is yet to have her ‘installation’ service. The date has not yet been decided and will most likely take place in 2021 when the coronavirus pandemic has eased.
Emma welcomes everybody to take part and celebrate her officially as vicar of St Barnabas Erdington in the Church of England.
To find out more about St Barnabas Church, visit www.stbarnabaserdington.org.uk