Restrictions brought in halt the spread of Covid-19 have been scrapped in churches throughout England and Wales after nearly two years.
The wearing of masks inside churches is optional rather than compulsory and there will be no social distancing.
The use of shared hymn books has resumed, the sign of peace reintroduced and holy water stoups filled up again.
On Ash Wednesday, which falls on March 2, priests will be able to administer ashes with their thumbs instead of a cotton bud.
Bishops and priests will no longer use cotton buds for anointing during the Sacrament of Confirmation and the Sacrament of the Sick.
The relaxation of restrictions corresponds with the end of the Government’s “Plan B” restrictions introduced in response to the arrival of the highly infectious by comparatively mild Omicron strain of the coronavirus.
The majority of British adults are also vaccinated against Covid-19, and the death rate and pressure on the NHS is low in spite of the prevalence of the virus.
Canon Christopher Thomas, general secretary of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said the time had come for people to live with the virus.
“The scientific consensus is that society is moving towards the stage where the virus is transitioning from the pandemic phase to the endemic phase, but … there is still a risk associated with gathering for sustained periods in enclosed spaces and therefore there needs to be continued caution by all against infection,” he said.
“This, however, has to be balanced against the need to move forward safely towards a normal lifestyle and these two positions will always be held in tension,” he said. “This holding in tension is the key to living safely with Covid-19, namely keeping infections from a virus that cannot be eliminated to levels which minimise disruption to people’s lives.”
He added: “Whilst this reduction of restrictions brings about a more normal way of living, the Covid-19 virus is still in circulation, and this should be in the mind of those participating in the life of the Church as time goes forward holding in balance the need for personal safety and taking responsibility for that safety.”
Canon Thomas said the English and Welsh bishops supported vaccination and “encourages people to be vaccinated” as the first line of defence against contracting the virus and he said anyone with any infectious illness should stay at home.
He also advised that churches “should continue to ensure there is good ventilation, balancing this against the need for church heating, especially at this time”.
Other precautions include ministers of Holy Communion continuing to sanitize their hands and the regular replacement of holy water used by people for blessing themselves when they enter and leave churches.
At present, priests are also being advised to administer Holy Communion only in the form of consecrated hosts rather than in both forms.