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Light for worship, then more

05 May 2017


Our church is being rewired in 2017, and we want to have significant input into the design — not least because the old lighting is awful. Do you have any pointers about the things that we should address?


THE primary purpose of your church is for worship. You might have a high altar, a nave altar, and side chapels; each of these should be areas for lighting, to facilitate focus on the centre of the congregation’s attention, the sacrament — and, also, so that the priest can see the service book easily.

Focused lighting in these areas can also add atmosphere when there is no service in progress, and only partial lighting is needed. Members of the congregation need good lighting so that they can read hymn books, prayer books, and service sheets. Circulation areas, where people are simply moving through, need less light, but bear in mind that the location where sidespeople greet people at the door may need slightly more light, despite being primarily a circulation space.

Steps should be well lit, and places where small groups meet should be lit adequately for the activity: in my local church, that’s the weekday “Knit and Natter” group, as well as coffee mornings. It should be possible to light this space without lighting the whole church, apart from, perhaps, the nave altar, to add to the sense of being in a holy place.

Some churches consider per­formance lighting for concerts and the like. It is normally not possible to have permanent installa­tion of full theatre-type lighting, but, for example, orchestras need individual lights for the members. In this case, it is possible to provide power access for movable lights, whether indi­vidual ones or larger stage lights. Installed stage lighting is expensive, and is nearly always in the wrong place for a particular performance, and it requires sig­nificant opera­tional skill. Unless your space is used for performance most of the time, I would recom­mend that groups should bring in lights as they are needed.

How will you control your lighting? Most lighting designers and technicians like the most con­temporary, computer-controlled, themed lighting: that is, a switching system that, with one flick, puts on the lights that are appropriate to the event.

I would warn you that, in most churches, there is only one person who is shown how to operate the system, often imperfectly; he or she is unable to teach anyone else what to do; the one knowledgeable person is not available at the beginning of all events; and so on.

Most of us would rather see a bank of switches labelled individu­ally for areas of the church, so that we can switch on what we need rather than switch on all the lights, when all we want to do is to get down a side aisle to a vestry.

Insist on the installation of what will work for your church, and double-check at all stages of design. I have been to churches where they asked for indiv­idual switches, but, when the works were handed over, a themed panel had been installed; or where people were never asked what they wanted.

On practical issues, ensure that: you will have easy access to change bulbs without risking life and limb; you will be able to buy re­­placement bulbs locally, and as cheaply as possible; you can switch off up­­lighters to save power if you wish to; additional power-points are suf­ficient and well-placed; and there are cable runs available in the floor or foot of the walls for extra equip­ment, including any audio-visual equipment and its cabling.

Then, check whether you need items such as phone lines, or cable for WiFi, to be included in the cable trunking, and that a hearing loop is installed. In listed churches, the design of fittings and the visual impact of new cable runs and extra fittings will be an important con­sid­­eration, but address these issues in bringing together your Statement of Need with your Statement of Sig­nificance to assess the impact and mitigating action with your archi­tect and design team.


Send your issues and questions to maggiedurran@virginmedia.com.

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