We have measured the decay of chlorophyll a fluorescence at 4 degrees C under anaerobic conditions in stabilized photosystem II reaction center complex isolated from spinach, using multifrequency (2-400 MHz) cross-correlation phase fluorometry. Examination of our data shows that although the fluorescence decay of open reaction centers (i.e., when both the electron donor P-680 and the electron acceptor pheophytin are capable of engaging in charge separation) can be analyzed as a multiexponential decay, another representation of the data is obtained when the decay is analyzed using a continuous distribution of lifetimes. Our results on the open reaction center differ from the two lifetime components of 25 ps and 35 ns published by Mimuro et al. (Biochim. Biophys. Acta 933 (1988) 478-486) for the D1-D2-cytochrome b-559 complex, obtained for F682 at 4 degrees C by a time-resolved photon-counting spectrofluorometer. When the reaction centers are closed by pretreatment with sodium dithionite and methyl viologen followed by exposure to laser excitation, conditions known to result in accumulation of reduced pheophytin, a dramatic decrease in the contribution of the slow lifetime component(s) is observed. These results suggest that the slow distribution lifetime component(s) in the 5-20 ns range originate(s) in the back reaction of the charge separated state. On the other hand, the fast lifetime component(s) in the picosecond range may be only partially related to the charge separation, since no dramatic change is observed upon closure of the reaction center. Perhaps, this component is related, in part, to the excitation energy migration among the various chromophores in the reaction center preparations.