Church Lighting

Light: The Medium of Vision

Michael Phillips

Over the centuries, knowledge and understanding have been inextricably linked with light. We have all urged others to look at things in a new light, for example, or to shed more light on a particular issue. Indeed, without light we struggle to make sense of our environment. Most of the information we need to understand our surroundings comes from what we see, and with inadequate light we lose not just scale and perspective but also colour and detail.

But light is not just a functional necessity, allowing us to see and be seen, it also has an impact on our response to the world. Through carefully designed lighting for our surroundings, we can communicate ideas. Through emphasis, accent, diminution and modification of the visual image we can attract attention, stimulate feelings and provoke responses. In so doing, we are able to define the scope of human awareness, interest and activity.


the reason for requiring new church lighting may be simply that there is insufficient light over the pews to see properly. Other reasons may include a re‑ordering of the space, difficulty in maintaining the existing lighting equipment, or perhaps the necessity for a re‑wire prompting an evaluation of the future lighting needs.

Achieving a lighting design which meets both functional and aesthetic requirements is not easy. It requires technical expertise coupled with an artistic, creative and sympathetic response both to the building itself and its particular purpose. church lighting design, whilst fundamentally no different in theory to many other areas of lighting, presents its own challenges for the designer. For a start, no two churches are exactly the same; the building could have a variety of differing requirements depending on the worship liturgy, the form and style of the architecture, the expectations of the congregation, the needs of visitors and tourists and the range of activities carried out within the building.

Patience and dedication are required to achieve the right balance between these needs. The overall effect should be neither lavish nor brash, not over‑stated nor skimped. It should instead be sufficient, appropriate, and in keeping with the building.

Adequate functional lighting for the congregation and for those leading or making contributions to the service is essential. Care should be taken to ensure that glare or distraction is not a by-product of providing sufficient light over the seating. In addition, the lighting must provide a focus for key events during the service, subtly emphasising the altar and important focal points, and generally revealing the beauty of the architecture, furnishings and vestments. Accent and architectural lighting must however, support rather than overpower the service. Natural light from the windows should also be taken into account, bearing in mind their role as a key component in the architectural form and character of the interior, particularly where they incorporate stained glass. Artificial light should complement their contribution and not compete with it.

Special consideration may also need to be given to lighting for other spaces which have an important contribution to the function of the church. The entrance to a church is an area that is often neglected. The right lighting here can introduce the particular nature of the building and help produce a friendly and welcoming atmosphere that can sub‑consciously acquaint individuals to their new surroundings and activity. Areas where choral and orchestral works and where nativity plays for example are performed will also require special consideration.

Historical artefacts such as memorials and display features including banners, notice boards and book stalls all may require special lighting which should be both in keeping with the immediate surroundings and with the lighting scheme as a whole.


Architectural lighting of the exterior can be a very powerful and public statement. Too often it is overdone both in effect and with regard to the amount of equipment used. Exterior lighting may be of value to provide safer access and deter vandalism after dark. It may also be able to enhance the visual status of the church in the wider community. Careful maintenance of exterior lighting is essential both for safety and to ensure that the lighting is doing what was intended – and not the opposite! some exterior church lighting is installed by the local authorities. Occasionally it turns out that the church is left with a poorly maintained and badly designed scheme in the longer term. The benefit of not paying for either the installation or the running costs may be little compensation for a badly illuminated church. The exterior view of the church during daytime can also be sadly defaced by poorly installed lighting equipment and wiring. Some churchyards end up looking more like a space age landing site than a final resting place of the faithful or an inviting place for tranquillity and quiet meditation. Ground recessed lighting can now offer protection from such visual intrusion and from all but the most determined vandals.

At Escomb, near Bishop Auckland in County Durham, the ancient burial ground surrounding the Saxon church required a restriction on the location and number of electric cables laid in the ground. By mounting only three light projectors in nearby trees, the historic view of the church was effectively lit, unimpaired by intrusive lighting equipment and also very cost effectively.

The level of funds available will have an effect on the final design but the principal aim must be to achieve a design which complements the style of the building whilst providing both suitable visual effects and adequate functional lighting.


The choice of light fitting may be visually critical. Chandeliers, wall mounted fittings and other prominent lighting equipment must be in keeping with the style of architecture and furnishings. The views of the key focal points of worship should not be restricted by any form of modern suspended lighting. Subtle lighting can be achieved in most churches by carefully concealed light sources, allowing the space to be defined with minimum alteration to the original visual architectural concepts.

The fundamental decision to use either concealed or visible light fittings, or perhaps a combination of the two, may be influenced by the style of architecture, the physical dimensions of the space, the building structure, the existing lighting installation, the state of the wiring and, last but not least, the church’s style of worship and financial resources. Ancient historic buildings such as St Paul’s 7th century church at Jarrow, require very discreet interior lighting. Visible light fittings would be unlikely to be in keeping with the ancient architecture and would detract from the historic aspects of the place and its timeless importance as a place of worship.

The success of a church lighting design is so dependent on these fundamentals that a full discussion of the initial options or proposals should precede any detailed design. Basic visual, practical and cost implications should be discussed with the church wardens, property stewards, the clergy, the church architect and any other key interest groups, to ensure that the various expectations can be properly addressed by the designer.

Where precious materials are to be lighted, the effects of light, ultra‑violet radiation and heat should be addressed to provide protection from any possible damage, and noise from lighting equipment should be considered as a potential distraction to worship and quiet prayer. noisy equipment should either be excluded from the design or located away from sensitive areas such as the main worship areas, side chapels and confessional areas.

The development of lighting technology in recent years means that designers now have a wide variety of products to work with – both in terms of light fittings and light sources.

Whilst this has allowed designers to develop a much wider and more accurate range of lighting effects, it has also made the quality of the design more critical – if a church is to achieve a suitable and lasting visual effect. For example, the initial and continuing running costs, the ease of on‑going maintenance and the future availability of replacement lamps must all be considered in the design process.

In making design decisions, a wide range of technical issues need to be taken into account including the relative importance of initial costs, against long‑term energy savings; the quality of colour rendering required and the optimum life span of the lamps if maintenance access is restricted.

Further decisions need to be made on the most effective means of controlling the lighting once installed. In addition to familiar switches, it is now possible to incorporate cost effective dimming facilities and hand‑held remote controls which can add a new dimension for both worship and secular events, allowing easy changes to lighting focus and effects.

For larger churches computer controlled systems may be more financially feasible, allowing the church to define a variety of pre‑set lighting options which are then available at the touch of a button. Examples of pre‑set scene options could include morning worship, evensong, baptisms, funerals and chancel only services, plus secular events such as choral works or flower festivals. Where churches attract large numbers of visitors to see works of art, memorials or architecture, a special scene setting for visitors may help produce energy and maintenance savings.


The implementation of the lighting scheme should be considered during the design process. The chosen lighting system will have a direct bearing on the type of wiring, cable routes, mounting brackets and fixings and the locations of switches and controls. There are many aspects here which can cause problems, the first being the choice of electrical contractor! Some contractors have considerable experience of working in ancient churches, but supervision will still be required to ensure that no damage is inadvertently inflicted on ancient stonework, timbers, wall finishes and even furnishings.

Electricians could be working in a quarry one day and then in a Grade I listed building the next. The adjustment to the additional level of care required is simply not possible for some contractors. Electrical contractors experienced in working in churches will of course know their employees and ensure that only suitable craftsmen are appointed to such delicate work, but as much of the electrical industry has failed to train apprentices to replace the retiring skilled craftsmen in recent years, this issue will become increasingly more critical to the conservation of valuable buildings in the future.

Forethought by the designer can reduce this risk by providing detailed instructions concerning cable routes, numbers and size of cables, methods of fixing and precautions to be taken during site work to protect property and people. Copper sheathed cable is well known to be durable and desirable in valuable historic buildings. not so well known is the fact that it is available in larger multi‑core options. this enables the use of one cable containing several circuits, thereby reducing the visibility of wiring, but this does require pre‑planning of the cable installation. For this reason and to save money the easier option of installing a greater number of two and three core cables is all too often the method chosen by contractors. Detailed design and specification coupled with supervision of the works, ensures such options are properly employed. Cable routes should be agreed in detail. Wherever possible they should, of course, be run out of sight; otherwise they should be painted to match the background.

Modern technology does offer some less obvious benefits to reducing the visual impact of wiring. Remote hand-held infra‑red control stations can replace entirely some of the conventional wiring. Improvements to light sources include a general reduction to their physical size, with a tighter, more efficient beam control and less light waste. As a result lower wattage may be used, thereby reducing the required electrical loads and the subsequent cable sizes.

Effective use of capital resources, responsible energy conservation, reduction of running costs and minimising visual intrusion, are all good reasons for designing lighting schemes with as few lighting fittings as possible. On the other hand, precision in placing light in one place, usually means there is a need to apply a similar precision in placing light elsewhere to ensure the whole space is lighted as envisaged. this seeming conflict between fewer larger light sources and smaller but more numerous and precise sources, can be successfully addressed by informed and skilful designers. Many historic buildings do not require much light to enhance their character and to perform as a place of worship – they simply need the right light in the right place at the right time. to design for a minimum equipment usage demands the highest levels of accuracy and experience from the designer.

Generally speaking, a church lighting designer should be able to draw not only on his or her technical expertise but also on a personal experience of the particular form of worship because this allows a truly sympathetic response to the building and its use.

Once implemented, the design is there to be enjoyed, but it is still worth keeping an eye on the future. Good documentation will enable lamps to be replaced to exactly the right specification and that the lighting fittings can be re‑aligned afterwards, to the correct aiming angle. In short, it may ensure that the lighting effects, so carefully and painstakingly achieved, can be maintained for the full life of the installation, rather than until the first lamp fails and is perhaps replaced incorrectly, by a willing but un‑informed volunteer.

Such is the lighting of churches – science, art, care and dedication – both a frustration and a joy, but the result of good lighting design is clearly there for all to see.

The Conservation and Repair of Ecclesiastical Buildings, 1996


MICHAEL PHILLIPS is a member of the Institution of Lighting Engineers and a holder of the Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineer’s Lighting Diploma, with more than 20 years experience as a lighting design engineer. His practice, Lighting Design & Consultancy, aims to blend science with art and underpin creative sensitive lighting with sound engineering principles. Since launching the practice he has undertaken some 80 church lighting projects throughout Britain, from Jersey to the Outer Hebrides.

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