Let there be (better) light, says lighting engineer

Sadly, when God (through his messenger, William Tyndale) said “let there be light,” he really didn’t go into details. But a Toronto-based lighting engineer and Anglican is on a near life-long quest to improve lighting in churches, as well as other spaces we inhabit.

At 6’8″, Ernest Wotton jokes that most people who meet him guess that he spends most of his time changing light bulbs, but proper church lighting is no laughing matter to him. Throughout his career he has consulted on the lighting for dozens of churches and other buildings around the world, even on submarines and aircraft; he says many churches have inappropriate, insufficient and poorly planned lighting.

One significant problem is that aging congregations in many churches often require improved lighting to read hymnals and prayer books. Like ramps, elevators and assistive listening devices, improved lighting is one more way of making churches accessible, says Mr. Wotton.

“We are renovating many churches now, especially post-war churches, and we are making a great play at making places suitable for people with all sorts of disabilities,” he says. “People spend bags of money on making churches barrier-free, and then they get there and they can’t see. I think that’s silly. 

“Maybe you can’t do anything about the size of print in a prayer book, but you can improve lighting.”

One church he has worked at, Toronto’s Eglinton St. George’s United Church, for instance, in an effort at becoming accessible to people with disabilities, has “hotted up”, or increased, the lighting in one area of the nave. The same area will eventually have hearing aids to help elderly parishioners and those with hearing or vision problems.

Often, says the lighting engineer, people who are hard of hearing will lip read, sometimes unconsciously. Proper lighting of the preacher or celebrant can help them.
The key to improving lighting in churches, says Mr. Wotton, is to consult someone who knows both about churches and lighting. While that sounds obvious, not all consultants in the field combine both expertise on the mechanics of lighting with an understanding of how church space is used.

Who should be lit? Where does the choir sit? Do parishioners sing from hymnals or do they read from drop-down screens? Are other liturgical arts – like dance or drama – featured in services? (Mr. Wotton is married to Sally Armour Wotton, a well-known figure in theatre arts and liturgical drama.)  These are all questions taken into account when Mr. Wotton advises on lighting conditions. 

Chief among his recommendations:

  • Decide what should not be the focus and alter the lighting accordingly; for instance, the common pendant lights featured in many churches, popular because of their affordability, direct their light toward the ceiling. Mr. Wotton believes this wrongly puts a focus on the ceiling. “You should have plenty of light on who you want people to see,” he says.
  • Decide who and what should be the focus for those sitting in the pews. Usually, Mr. Wotton recommends that lights should focus attention on the pulpit (to light the preacher), the altar (and the celebrant) and the choir (if it sits in the chancel). If the worship space is to be used for drama or dance, that space must be properly lit as well.
  • If hymns or other texts are projected on a screen, keep light from the church’s general lighting away from the screen or it will wash out the text.
  • If the choir sits in the chancel, they must have light from the back, in order to read their music, and from the front, so they can be seen.
  • Check lighting for glare; light is too glaring if it is more comfortable for you to shield your eyes with a hand.
  • Dark walls inevitably mean a dark space, regardless of the lighting. Lightening the colour of church walls will brighten the space.
  • Often, older churches can improve lighting and still maintain a historic appearance by leaving the existing lighting in place and adding inconspicuous, modern lights to its existing complement.

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